Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie, the author and illustrator of the book I’m featuring today, are having a particularly good week. The 2016 ALA Youth Media Awards were announced this Monday, and both of them garnered some love from the American Library Association. Weatherford’s exquisite Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement received a Sibert Honor. The book’s illustrator, Ekua Holmes, received a Caldecott Honor, as well as the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award. And Christie received a Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Honor for The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson.
We may very well be talking about their new book, Freedom in Congo Square, this time next year too. It’s already received multiple starred reviews, including one from Kirkus. The book celebrates what is called Congo Square in New Orleans, where slaves once met on Sundays, their one day of freedom, to play music, dance, and sing.
The book opens with a Foreword from historian Freddi Williams Evans, who is an expert on Congo Square. It’s the type of back story on a book’s subject matter most often seen at the close of a book, but it serves its purpose here to seamlessly introduce the reader to Congo Square and why it’s known all over the world.
The Square, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, is located in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, Louisiana. In her Foreword, Evans explains for the young readers at which the book is aimed how Africans had been captured in West and Central Africa and brought to United States as property. They worked all day long from Mondays through Saturdays, but because of a law called the Code Noir, Sundays were set aside as holy days. Many people of African heritage met in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons:
“There, they formed circles around groups of dancers and musicians in different
parts of the square. Inside those circles, musicians played instruments like the ones
they knew in their homelands, including different kinds and sizes of drums along with
string and wind instruments. The dances originated in parts of West and Central West
Africa and included the Calinda, Bamboula, Juba, and the Congo. Those who stood
around joined in by clapping, singing, and shaking gourd rattles.”
Weatherford’s rhyming text pays tribute to these celebrations. She speaks from the point of view of the slaves and counts down the days till Sunday: “Mondays,” she opens, “there were hogs to slop, / mules to train, and logs to chop. / Slavery was no ways fair. / Six more days to Congo Square.” On each spread, one for each work day, she lays out the slaves’ chores and responsibilities. Even knowing the celebration that is to come, the reader is no less pleased to see the joyous gathering at the book’s close “where African music could resound.”
Christie’s illustrations feature the sorts of elongated figures that marked, in particular, his earlier work. The fiery orange palette grows ever more unrestrained as the story builds to its jubilant conclusion. Where many of the earlier spreads feature a dark, menacing tree—in the fields where the slaves worked—it’s replaced in the end by wide open spaces, as people stretch, leap, drum, jump, and dance. “This piece of earth,” Weatherford writes, “was a world apart. / Congo Square was freedom’s heart.”
The book closes with a glossary and even more information about Congo Square from Weatherford. Highly recommended for school and public libraries, it’s a soaring tribute to the efforts of slaves to safeguard their music and culture, as well as to celebrate with pride in the face of incredible injustice.
FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE. Copyright © 2016 by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by R. Gregory Christie. Spread used by permission of the publisher, Little Bee Books, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.