Journalist Wills reaches back through her family tree for a story of freedom and self-determination.
Little Emma is enslaved on the Moore plantation in Haywood County, Tennessee, in 1858. She works in the house, caring for and playing with the white master’s children—but not learning with them. More than anything, she wants what they have but she can’t: freedom and literacy. With the end of the Civil War, she gains one but not the other. Emma marries a former black Union soldier and has children, milestones recorded by others. When he dies, she applies for survivor’s benefits but is denied twice due to bureaucratic quibbles about her husband’s name. (The use of this same tool to deny voting rights today goes unmentioned, but the parallels are clear for adults who wish to draw them.) Her third application, based on the records of her children’s births, is approved. It’s an unusual plot for a picture book, but Wills pulls it off, emphasizing both Emma’s unrealized desire to read and write and the importance of literacy to the successful negotiation of power structures. Cornelison contributes soft-focus paintings that linger on Emma’s determined, soulful face. Her differentiation of other African American characters is weak; most are the same shade of brown and have similarly round faces and cheeks. Copious backmatter includes a note on primary sources, discussion questions and activities, and a two-page glossary.
The message is clear and convincingly conveyed: Literacy is survival. (Picture book. 5-10)