We readers, those of us who enjoy reading and spreading the joy of reading to others, know certain truths. We know words are powerful. Every single word, sentence, paragraph and story we read becomes a part of our story. Whether we are informed by facts or fiction, we are not the same. We are more than we were before. We are connected to the creators of those words, sentences, paragraphs and stories and every other person who reads them.
For these reasons and numerous others, being able to read is not only a right (The Students' Right to Read, NCTE and The Freedom to Read Statement, ALA) but a gift we give to ourselves. The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned To Read (Schwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, January 7, 2020) written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard with illustrations by Oge Mora is a moving tribute to the resilience and determination of a remarkable woman. With every page turn your admiration for this woman grows until the one striking moment you realize you're changed by learning about her life.
Whenever young Mary Walker was tired, she would shield her eyes from the sun and watch the swallow-tailed kites dip and soar above the trees.
As she watched those birds dip and soar, she imagined it was the same as being free. Mary Walker never stood still long though, she had to keep working on the plantation in Alabama. She also knew she was not allowed to learn to read. She was eight years old, a slave and the year was 1856.
At fifteen and fatherless, she and her family were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of the freed people left but Mary stayed with her mother and siblings. She worked seven days a week. She was paid a quarter for that week of work.
Along the road one day, Mary Walker was given a Bible by an evangelist. She treasured this gift but couldn't read a word of it. There was no time to learn to read. There was only time to work as a sharecropper, a maid, nanny or cook, a mother to three sons and a wife to two husbands. (Her first husband died.) Mary worked and worked and worked like this for decades until she was sixty-eight years old. There was no more sharecropping for her, but she still worked doing whatever she could for others.
One by one, Mary's husband and three sons died. She found herself alone at 114 years old. She decided it was time to learn to read. Like she had worked and worked at all her other jobs, she worked and worked at learning to read and write. The day Mary Walker could read was cause for celebration. People in her community of Chattanooga celebrated. Other journalists from other towns came and celebrated. And a man from the US Department of Education arrived and celebrated. She was 116 years old. She was an impressive and inspirational force and still is today. (Mary Walker passed away on December 1, 1969.)
As you read about the life of Mary Walker as written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard you feel a growing sense of respect. With each detail about Mary Walker's life, layer by layer, your wonder for this woman builds. There is a tension created by Mary having to work and wanting to read. You find yourself making exclamations out loud. You find yourself saying, if Mary Walker can do it, so can I. Here is a passage.
Mary was twenty years old when her first son was born.
She opened her Bible and marveled at the squiggles inside. There had been no
time to learn to read.
A friend wrote Mary's son's birth date in the Bible: August 26, 1869
Then Mary dipped a pen into an inkwell and made her mark beside it.
Not a letter, not a name, just a mark. It was the best she could do.
As soon as you gaze at the open dust jacket, you recognize the signature artwork of Oge Mora. This image on the front and all the illustrations throughout the book are rendered
in acrylic paint, china marker, colored pencil, patterned paper, and book clippings.
The soft swirl of sky and clouds on the front moves over the spine to the back. What changes is Mary Walker. On the front she is much older and hugging her beloved Bible in front of buildings in the city where she resided. To the left, on the back, she is much younger, standing along the road. She is still hugging her Bible, perhaps on the day she received it. Behind her to the left, a field is being tended by a sharecropper. The caption on the back reads:
TO OLD TO LEARN.
On both faces of Mary Walker, old and young, there is quiet determination. Her closed eyes suggest deep reflection.
On the book case a collage of paper pieces is covered by a wash of golden yellow. From left to right swallow-tailed kites soar higher and higher and off the right-hand corner. A light silhouette of Mary Walker is standing in the lower, left-hand corner, looking up and shielding her eyes from the sun.
On the opening and closing endpapers, Oge Mora has placed black and white photographs of Mary Walker in blue frames on a varied blue patterned paper. There are lines of green and yellow running through it also. A smaller visual on the title page shows an open book with swallow-tailed kites flying from the pages.
Oge Mora's pictures span two pages, single pages or part of a full page. She conveys deep emotions in the placement of every single element in her images. As each page is turned, we find ourselves looking for Mary Walker.
One of my many, many favorite illustrations spans two pages. A table covers nearly one-half of the bottom. On the left it's a place for text. From the left to right, on this table are a cup, a crumpled piece of paper, pages covered in the words Mary Walker, some blank pieces of paper and Mary Walker's glasses. Mary Walker is bent over the table, her head resting on her curved left arm. In her right hand she holds a pencil. She has fallen asleep sitting in her chair. Above the rounded form of her back a river of letters moves from right to left. From the top of the page to the table, the canvas is dark.
The life of this woman as portrayed in The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned To Read written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard with illustrations by Oge Mora is uplifting in every aspect. The blend of text and images creates a superb tribute. There is a selected bibliography on the verso page and an author's note at the end. I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.
To learn more about Rita Lorraine Hubbard and Oge Mora and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites. Rita Lorraine Hubbard has accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Oge Mora has accounts on Instagram and Twitter. Rita Lorraine Hubbard is interviewed at Chapter 16 by author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson and at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.
To view the other titles selected this week by participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.