Four new picture books celebrate the lives of African Americans who have contributed to the arts, sciences and the written word.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver opens in 1921 on the historic day that Carver addressed Congress and evangelized the many uses of the peanut. From there, author Gene Barretta travels back to 1874 to meet a frail young Carver, who lived with a white couple on the farm where he was once enslaved. Carver, who loved working in nature, tended to a secret garden. At age 12, he left the farm and eventually became the first black man to graduate from Iowa Agricultural College. Although the rest of the book emphasizes Carver’s contributions to botany and agriculture, Barretta goes beyond Carver’s work with peanuts, highlighting his innovative work in science and education and describing him as a “folk hero.”
The final spread shows Carver as an elderly man, tending to yet another secluded garden. Illustrator Frank Morrison, working in richly colored oils, depicts Carver’s tall frame, resting on a cane, looking out over a field of vibrant flowers. Throughout the book, Morrison’s use of light is particularly effective, whether it’s the warm light that glows from behind the elderly Carver as he speaks to Congress or the rays of sunlight that illuminate his boyhood garden. The illustrations shine in this ode to a celebrated inventor who was “always ready to serve humanity.”
By and By
By and By tells the life story of Charles Tindley, composer of dozens of hymns. Acclaimed poet Carole Boston Weatherford narrates via spare rhymes that read as if Tindley himself is singing directly to readers. “My life is a sermon inside a song,” the book opens. “I’ll sing it for you. Won’t take long.”
Tindley’s life was remarkable. Since his mother was a free woman, he was spared from slavery at birth in Maryland. But when she died, he was hired out. He learned about scripture from spirituals sung in the fields. He taught himself to read and walked barefoot to church every Sunday. As an adult, Tindley promised himself he would learn one thing each day: “Farmhand by day, student by night.” He married, moved to Philadelphia, continued his education and became the pastor of the very church where he once worked as a janitor. As he nurtured his congregation, his “small flock” grew, and he wrote the influential hymnal Soul Echoes.
Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations, which incorporate sheet music, are a rich and layered tribute to Tindley’s life. The book’s backmatter includes a list of hymns that Weatherford quotes throughout the text. This first picture book biography of Tindley is a superb introduction to the man who left a rich legacy in American gospel music.
The Power of Her Pen
Award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome tells the story of another talented writer in The Power of Her Pen, chronicling the life and career of journalist Ethel L. Payne, known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” Although it begins with Payne’s childhood, describing a girl with an ear for storytelling, the book focuses primarily on Payne’s accomplishments as a journalist. Payne reported from Tokyo during World War II and worked at the black newspaper The Chicago Defender—all before becoming one of only three black journalists issued a press pass to the Eisenhower White House and the first African American commentator on a national television network.
Cline-Ransome writes reverently about Payne, who fearlessly asked questions about race that politicians would have preferred to avoid, reported on stories that the mainstream white press dismissed and uncovered answers for those “whose paths were paved with dreams.” In his signature folk-art style, John Parra’s acrylic paintings capture snapshots of Payne’s career. He incorporates many images of birds in flight, a fitting motif for a journalist whose determined reporting “created awareness and activism in the fight for civil rights for people across the globe.”
★ The Oldest Student
Mary Walker, dubbed “the nation’s oldest student” by the U.S. Department of Education, may not be as well known as Carver, Tindley or Payne, but her life is equally extraordinary. Author Rita Lorraine Hubbard brings Walker’s exceptional story to the page in The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. In 1863, at the age of 15, Walker was freed from slavery. When she was a teenager, an evangelist gave Walker a Bible, telling her that her “civil rights are in these pages.” Understanding the “squiggles” of that Bible became Walker’s lifelong goal. She eventually moved from Alabama to Tennessee, where, well past the age of 100, she at last learned to read. Walker diligently studied the alphabet, famously noting, “You’re never too old to learn,” and read proudly from her Bible at the age of 116.
Hubbard commemorates Walker’s story with care; she writes in an author’s note that much about Walker is unknown and explains that she “chose to imagine . . . details to fill in the blanks.” The book’s illustrations come from Caldecott Honoree Oge Mora, who also includes bird imagery as symbolic of Walker’s longing for freedom and her determined spirit. Mora collages scraps of text into many spreads as reminders of Walker’s spectacular accomplishment. It all adds up to a riveting portrait of a strong-willed American icon.