Review of The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read
by Rita Lorraine Hubbard; illus. by Oge Mora
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.    g
1/20    978-1-5247-6828-7    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-6829-4    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-6830-0    $10.99

As an enslaved child on an Alabama plantation, Mary Walker would look up at the birds soaring overhead and think: “That must be what it’s like to be free.” As a teen she was emancipated from slavery but still had to work hard all her life just to get by. At age 114, having outlived two husbands and three children, she decided to learn to read. The appended author’s note says that very little is known about Walker’s life during the intervening years (“I chose to imagine…details to fill in the blanks”); the generally straightforward (and unsourced) text includes invented thoughts and dialogue (“‘I’m going to learn to read those words,’ she vowed”). Pronounced “the nation’s oldest student,” Walker met presidents, flew in an airplane, and at long last “felt complete.” She died in 1969 at age 121. Mora’s vibrant mixed-media collages work in swirls of deep blues and greens. As Mary’s life unfurls, bird motifs appear, reiterating the freedom that she discovered when she learned to read. Words are embedded throughout, enriching each scene, and on the final page we see Walker’s quote: “You’re never too old to learn.” Photos of this inspirational woman appear on the endpapers.

From the January/February 2020 Horn Book Magazine.

Maija Meadows Hasegawa

Maija Meadows Hasegawa is a disabled librarian of color who works as the Youth Programs Librarian for the Children's Library at the Central Library of the Boston Public Library. She has previously worked at two branches in Dorchester. She holds a master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons University.

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