Benjamin Sterling Turner, the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress from the state of Alabama, is the subject of this picture-book biography.
Rosner and Gaillard tell the story in Turner’s voice, opening with his enslavement and his “yearning for an education,” which “would come alive” during “the reading mornings” when he would sneak and listen to his owner, Mrs. Turner, read aloud to her children. Turner was a tenacious learner. Children who are familiar with stories about Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass will notice this parallel with his contemporaries. From this book, readers learn that Turner was an interesting man who amassed a fortune twice before his death, raised a son alone after his first wife was sold away, and was elected to Congress despite having been born enslaved. However, a problem that presents almost immediately is that this book is related in the first person and therefore reads as though it is an autobiography. The authors mention both this decision and their sources in an opening note, but their fairly unorthodox choice unacceptably blurs the line between the facts of Turner’s life and fictional embellishment. Drawing on secondary resources for detail and Turner’s few recorded writings for his style, the authors put words in his mouth; a representative example: “I cannot say [my owner] was altogether unkind.” With no specific citation for this or other assertions, it is impossible for readers to know whether this was authentically Turner’s feeling or authorial imposition.
The story is an important one, but this vehicle can’t carry it. (Picture book/biography. 5-10)