‘Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story’ and ‘The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read’ are two important nonfiction picture books about learning to read against the odds

Two new picture books introduce young readers to two very important people, one of whom is already a household name (who is getting recognized more and more), Frederick Douglass, and the other someone who is well worth knowing, Mary Walker, perhaps the oldest person ever to learn to read. And while both books represent the finest in nonfiction picture books that are accessible to young readers and are appropriate for reading at any time of year, they are perhaps perfectly timed to be published just before Black History Month.

“Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story” is written by Shana Keller and illustrated by Kayla Stark. It tells the story of a slave boy who at the age of six was delivered to the “great house” by his grandmother to begin working. The story explicitly shows the bread for wordsdifference between Frederick and Daniel, his sometimes-companion and son of Frederick’s owner. While Daniel slept in a warm bed with a full belly, Frederick had no bed, no blanket, and not enough clothing to keep warm. Daniel knew his birthdate and age, Frederick did not. And Daniel learned to read and write, and although Frederick wanted to learn, he was not allowed to. He was sent to Baltimore to live with relatives of his owner, and it was there that Mrs. Sophia taught Frederick the alphabet and some three and four-letter words. But her husband learned of it, and in his anger he told her (with Frederick listening) that once a slave learned to read, “there would be no keeping him.” Mrs. Sophia stopped teaching the young slave, but Frederick became more determined to learn to read and write. The story goes on to explain in simple language what Frederick did to get others to help him without letting his owners know what he was doing. Even young children will be able to appreciate Frederick’s love of learning and his cleverness in furthering his quest for knowledge. (Sleeping Bear Press)

And while Frederick Douglass learned to read when he was a young boy, Mary Walker, oldest studentthe main character in “The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read” by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and Oge Mora, is perhaps the oldest person to ever learn to read. Both books are about people who were born slaves, but while Douglass was determined to read as a young boy, Mary Walker never seemed to have the time or the opportunity to learn. She was born in 1848 and was a slave until the age of 15. By 20, she was married and had a baby. She and her husband were sharecroppers, and readers will learn that meant that “after they harvested the crops, almost all the money they earned went to pay for the housing, tool, and seed costs.” There was never a chance to save money or spend time learning to read. Mary continued to work hard to support her family until she was 68, when they moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mary’s sons would read to her and her husband, but eventually her husband and all three of her sons died, the oldest at 94. She had outlived everyone. At 114, alone and unable to read, she heard about a reading class in her apartment building. She decided it was time. It took over a year, but Mary learned to read, write, add and subtract. (Schwartz & Wade)

Teachers and parents will love that both of these fine picture books exemplify a love of learning and the fact that there is no age at which one is too old to learn. Both books have an author’s note at the end with additional information about each person. These are perfect for classroom and library bookshelves and for reading at home. In fact, I am using these together to teach students about the importance of learning to read. Even my young kindergarteners are thinking about why learning to read and write are important for freedom. They are learning about perseverance and determination.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

 

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