Friday, February 01, 2008

Revisiting Times Past

There are in our library wonderful story books which reveal a great deal about times past. Stories set in Civil War or pioneer days, stories about colonial New England or the Dust Bowl, stories of West African kingdoms or Ellis Island, stories capturing the drama of Pompeii or trans-oceanic exploration. As much as a library's mission is to provide materials in which readers can see their own faces and experiences reflected, so too its mission is to take readers beyond their own experiences and expose them to times, places and perspectives beyond their immediate ken. It is a joy when an author and illustrator provide excellent material for that journey. It can be very difficult, too, when the subject is harsh or sad, shedding light in corners of our collective dark past. In preparation for illustrator E. B. Lewis's visit to Lawrence on Feb. 13, I read -- to fifth and sixth graders -- Margot Theis Raven's Night Boat to Freedom, illustrated by Lewis. Raven bases her story on two different slave narratives recorded in the 1930s: after a young boy listens to his grandma's description of being lured from her Africa home onto a ship bound for an uncertain future, he decides to be brave enough to row escaping slaves across the river from Kentucky to Ohio. The bond between Granny Judith and Christmas John is finely wrought in words and pictures. The overwhelmingly sad truth of the deception Granny Judith experienced when she was brought over to this continent and the fears of both living in slavery and dreaming of life beyond slavery were palpable. I am grateful for both the words and pictures that support a growing comprehension of difficult times in our history. For every reader or listener there seems to be a way in to understanding if not acceptance of these dark moments, and thankfully this particular story has its hopeful ending. Most Lawrence School students have read about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by the time they have gotten to fifth or sixth grade. Building on that familiarity, this book brings the unnumbered acts of unnamed people into focus, perhaps allowing readers to see themselves as part of the fabric of the continuing human story.