A passion for education and freedom brings subversive ingenuity to life in 1847 St. Louis.
James’ mother scrubs his face clean for his first day of “Tallow Candle School” in the basement of Rev. John’s church. Though initially resistant, once James realizes that Rev. John teaches children to read, he goes eagerly. “We make our own light here,” the preacher tells him. Hopkinson reveals John Barry Meachum’s true history through the stories he tells the children of being born a slave (in 1789 in Virginia) and working in the saltpeter mines to purchase his own freedom and that of both parents, then walking hundreds of miles to liberate his wife. (The backmatter also reveals that Meachum bought and freed several other slaves.) When the police burst into the school to inform Rev. John that Missouri has passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to read, he stops teaching temporarily. With James’ help, he uses his carpentry skills to build a steamboat on the Mississippi—federal property—in which his students can learn freely. This fascinating story, illustrated in pen and ink with a color palette of browns and blacks with occasional pops of blue and red, draws readers into the historical era effectively and emphasizes what a privilege literacy was for African-Americans in the 19th century.
An unforgettable story that needs to be known. (Picture book. 5-8)