Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wordsmith Extraordinaire

When you sit in a classroom knowing the answer but are afraid to raise your hand, you find solace in realizing you are right.  When you've been banished to the bench knowing you could assist your team if only given the opportunity, you find solace in past experiences.  When you sit alone as other groups gather, you find solace in your unique individualism and gifts.

As a slave in the United States the chance to attend school, join a team or create a circle of friends was not available.  Days were defined by back-breaking work and horrific living conditions.  One boy found solace in words, sustaining him for his entire life.  His days are passionately portrayed in Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree Publishers, September 1, 2015) by author illustrator Don Tate.

GEORGE LOVED WORDS.  He wanted to learn how to read, but George was enslaved.  

A master's approval for a slave learning to read was unlikely to happen.  Everything was about work.  George still gathered words he heard, weaving them together like a cloak of comfort.  He listened and learned the alphabet as white children studied.

A gift of a hymnal from his mother, even though he could not understand the words, was a promise.  The discovery of an old spelling book was all he needed to pursue the possibilities in that promise.  Alone in the dark by the light of a small fire, George Moses Horton learned to read.

Like water released from a dam, George read everything his eyes touched but what he loved the most was poetry.  Not only did he find pleasure in the reading of poems but he formed lines of poetry in his mind, keeping them safe until he could learn to write.  When he was seventeen George's life changed dramatically.  He was given to the master's son.

The best time was Sundays when he was allowed to walk eight miles to the campus of the University of North Carolina.  As he sold crops grown on the master's farm, to shield himself from the taunts of the students, he opened his mouth releasing those stored poetic words.  The students were enthralled.  George's life changed again.

Books were given to him.  Requests for poems were asked of him.  He was paid in money and other items for his beautiful words.  He was taught to write by a professional.  He was still the slave of the master's son.

His words were published.  An arrangement was made so he could write full time.  Money was raised to buy his freedom.  He was still the slave of the master's son.

The Civil War altered George's life once more not for the good until it ended.  He was sixty-six when he was no longer the slave of the master's son.  Words, wonderful words, had sustained this marvelous man, this poet.

By the time I finished the first page of this biography today, even though I have read it before, the words written by Don Tate brought tears to my eyes.  Perhaps it is the sharp contrast between sharing a few hours with students in a classroom hours earlier and the longing felt by George Moses Horton who wanted to learn to read but could not attend school.  Most certainly it's the carefully researched narrative placed on each page, descriptive, nearly lyrical and deeply moving.  Here is a sample passage.

Then George found an old spelling book.  It was tattered and some pages were missing, but it was enough to get him started.
George thumbed through its pages.  He recognized some of the letters.
At night, when he should have been resting after a long day of work,
George studied by firelight.  His eyes burned from the smoke. 

Pride in hard-won accomplishments radiates from George Moses Horton on the matching dust jacket and book case.  Those same wide flowing lines seen here are used within the body of the book to display text or heartwarming or heart wrenching events.  On the back, to the left, inset in this image is George, poetic words coming from his mind as he pushes a cart laden with fruits and vegetables to the university.  On the opening and closing endpapers with a background appearing like parchment or very old paper, Don Tate has lines streaming like ribbons from two different works by Horton.  Two title pages depict George at the university and on the farm working, always working.

Illustrations may span edge to edge across two pages, appear as a large inset in a double-page picture, or as smaller vignettes.  The insets are framed but one or more elements may extend beyond the boundary.  Historically accurate architecture, attire and landscape are depicted.  The facial expressions of George and the other people in his world are exquisite in their portrayal of particular moments.

Rendered in mixed media, gouache, archival ink, and pencil on acid-free, 100% cotton watercolor paper and digital the illustrations are illuminating.  We are acutely aware of every facet of George's life presented.  One of my several favorite illustrations is of George teaching himself to read.  Stars are strewn across a night sky as he rests on his elbows studying the old, torn spelling book.  He is on a small hill with a tiny fire burning.  Behind him a small, wooden, windowless shack is placed in the lower, left-hand corner.  Clothes are drying on a line.  It is inspirational and hopeful.

Poet:  The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton written and illustrated by Don Tate is one of the finest picture book biographies of this year.  No personal or professional bookshelf should be without a copy.  At the close of the book Tate includes a page of resources, an extensive two-page Author's Note and a page of acknowledgements.

You will want to learn more about Don Tate and his other books by accessing his website via the link attached to his name.  This link takes you to a page on the site dedicated to this title.  You might like to read his launch week post linked here.  John Schumacher, Scholastic Ambassador for School Libraries, revealed the book trailer on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read. along with a guest post by Tate.  Five Questions for Don Tate, Author of Poet: The Remarkable Life of George Moses Horton can be found at UNC Library News and Events. Don Tate is a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and at teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner's Let's Get Busy Podcast #184.  

Make sure you stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected by bloggers participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge this week.


  1. I have to get this book. I love biographies that were written for children.

    1. You really do need to have a copy of this Catherine. Picture book biographies are my favorite. This title is a treasure.

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  2. I also have a definite soft spot for picture book biographies, I will never tire of sharing them with kids. I haven't read this one yet, but wow, what an inspiring story, and an inspiring individual. It looks like a title that could really spark some great classroom conversations and reflections. Thanks for sharing, and have a great week!

    1. They completely capture their attention Jane. You are really going to like this one. Don Tate is a wonderful author and illustrator. You are welcome. I hope the rest of your week is filled with fun.