Freedom over me; Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life

Written & Illustrated by: Ashley Bryan

For ages: 10-12 years (grades 4-6)

Language: English

Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Enslavement, Enslaved People, Historical Figures, Historical Events, Poetry, Historic Narratives, Narratives of Enslavement. 

Summary: This book is comprised of poems telling the stories of 11 enslaved people.  Records of these individuals were found in a historical document owned by the author himself, who developed free verse poetry and personal details of the people who were merely listed with their price on a document.

In Athelia’s poem, the last stanza reads “As slaves, we do what our owners expect and demand of us. As human beings, our real lives are our precious secret.” Bryan brings to life the harsh realities of enslaved life in a way that humanizes and reveals the multi-faceted nature of these enslaved peoples.  After a poem that corresponds with each of the people: Peggy, John, Athelia, Betty, Qush, Jane, Stephen, Mulvina, Bacus, Charlotte & Dora;  another poem tells of their dreams.  While their real jobs and dreams are unaccounted for in written historical documents, they are probably not far off from the dreams of many of the millions of enslaved peoples throughout the history of the United States.  America is a country that was founded with and built on the backs of enslaved people.

These poems are beautiful, and have even more beautiful illustrations paired with them. Bryan does a fantastic job memorializing these 11 people that history all but forgot.  We particularly love the colorful illustration of Bacus’ dreams, showing him blacksmithing and singing a song of freedom.

Reflection Questions:

  • Why do you think that personal details of these and other enslaved people weren’t recorded?
  • How can we memorialize the lives lost through enslavement, if we don’t know so many of the people who were enslaved?
  • What other questions do you have about the process of creating poetry based on just a few simple details?
  • Why do you think Ashley Bryan felt the need to not only write these stories, but also make a book about them?
  • How is this helping our current day viewpoint about the lives of enslaved peoples?

About the Author & Illustrator:

ashleyAshley Bryan doesn’t speak his stories, he sings them, fingers snapping, feet tapping, his voice articulating. His entire body is immersed in the tale. Born in 1923, Ashley was raised in the Bronx, NY. At seventeen, he entered the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, having been denied entry elsewhere because of his race. Encouraged by supportive high school teachers, Ashley was told, “Apply to Cooper Union; they do not see you there.” Admission was based solely on a student’s exam portfolio. Drafted out of art school into the segregated US army at age nineteen, Ashley preserved his humanity throughout World War II by drawing, stowing supplies in his gas mask when necessary. After the war, Ashley completed his Cooper Union degree, studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, seeking to understand why humans choose war. In 1950, renowned cellist, Pablo Casals, agreed to break the vow of silence he had taken after Franco came to power in his native Spain. Ashley was permitted to draw Casals and his fellow musicians during rehearsals in Prades, France, where Casals was in exile. Through the power of Casals’ music sessions, something “broke free” for Ashley: “I found the rhythm in my hand.” Ashley returned to the United States, teaching art at several schools and universities, retiring in the 1980s to Maine’s Cranberry Isles as professor emeritus of Dartmouth College.

My Footprints

Written by: Bao Phi

Illustrated by: Basia Tran

For ages: 3 years and up

Language: English

Topics Covered: Imagination, LGBTQ Families, Bullying, Xenophobia, Family, Love, LGBTQ, Growing Up, Girls Outdoors.

Summary: 

My Footprints is a lovely book that tackles some tough subjects. Thuy, our main character, is walking home from school making footprints in the snow and thinking about how kids have been making fun of her for a slew of reasons. When she gets home, she’s greeted by both of her mothers who were shoveling snow outside. Together the three of them use imaginations to think critically about the situation and if those mean things that were said are true or worth thinking about. 

We think that this book is really important to use as a way to foster discussion about bullying and the things that were being said to Thuy. She’s teased for having two moms and told to “go back to where she came from”. Both homophobia and xenophobia are incredibly sensitive topics that are all over the media currently as well as near to our hearts. Being queer people that plan to have children one day, we are optimistic that things may change but realistic about the fact that there is a very good chance we will be having these conversations with a tiny person we wish we could shield the horrors of the world from. We are white, but we have family that immigrated here and have been profoundly harassed for being different. These are very real experiences that children have at school, and it does no good to shield others from this reality. Having a book like My Footprints that addresses tough times while not making it the focus is crucial. The author does a fantastic job of making Thuy and her mothers’ imagination be the healing power that their family needs. Focusing on the love instead of the hate, we can have tough conversations with those around us to create more empathy and windows into the lives of others around us. 

It’s personally one of the best books of the year in our opinion.

This book was sent to us by the Capstone for consideration in the Best Books of 2019 List put on by the Read With River book club. All opinions are our own!

About the Author & the Illustrator:

Bao-byMichaelTranBao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991.  A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, featured in the live performances and taping of the blockbuster diasporic Vietnamese variety show Paris By Night 114: Tôi Là Người Việt Nam, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. His poems and essays are widely published in numerous publications including Screaming Monkeys and Spoken Word Revolution Redux. He has also released several CDs of his poetry, such as Refugeography and The Nguyens EP. A short story of his, Revolution Shuffle, appeared in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Stories from Social Justice Movements, AK Press, 2015, and an essay of his was included in the anthology A Good Time for the Truth, edited by Sun Yung Shin, Minnesota Historical Society Press.

f070c83af410a5afeec167f172d086ec92bbee98Basia Tran is a Polish-Vietnamese children’s book and lifestyle illustrator currently based in her hometown Kraków, Poland.
Illustration BFA with Honors, Ringling College of Art & Design, Sarasota FL, USA
· · ·
Basia Tran jest polsko-wietnamską ilustratorką książeczek dla dzieci oraz designerką. Ukończyła studia z honorami na wydziale ilustratorstwa w Ringling College of Art & Design w Sarasocie na Florydzie i aktualnie mieszka i pracuje w pięknym, rodzinnym Krakowie.
· · ·
Basia Trần là một họa sĩ minh họa và thiết kế đồ họa người Việt Nam và Ba Lan. Bố mẹ của Basia sinh ra ở Thái Bình, nhưng Basia đã được sinh ra và lớn lên ở Kraków, Ba Lan. Tốt nghiệp đại học tại Ringling College of Art & Design ở Sarasota, Mỹ, bây giờ Basia đang làm việc ở quê nhà tại Kraków, Ba Lan. 
E-mail: tranbasia@gmail.com