This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t.
Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death. Collier’s strikingly symbolic collage illustrations often draw a stark line between what appears above and below the ground, emphasizing the covert nature of Bishop’s achievements. Perhaps the book’s most memorable illustration appears when, speaking in Bishop’s voice, Henson says that slaves are “bought and sold…same as an ox or mule” while overlapping silhouettes of black and brown textured faces appear within the collage cutout of an ox plowing a field. Rich backmatter will help young readers understand more about the historical context in which Bishop lived and died.
A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year. (Picture book/biography 4-8)