“A name. An age. A price. People like you. Like me. For sale!”
This is how Ashley Bryan opens the author’s note of his latest picture book. Years ago, Bryan acquired a collection of documents pertaining to slaves, dating from the 1820s to the 1860s. His inspiration for Freedom Over Me comes from an 1828 document in which 11 slaves were listed for sale by a woman named Mrs. Mary Fairchilds.
No ages are listed in Bryan’s source material, but for the profiles of the 11 slaves that constitute this book, he assigns ages to them, fleshing out their lives via free-verse poems. After opening the book from Mary’s point of view, Bryan brings readers a profile of each slave, followed by another poem about what he or she aspires to and dreams of. Peggy, for instance, is 48 years old, was sold on the block with her mother, was named “Peggy” by the men who took her from Africa and now cooks for the Fairchilds. In “Peggy Dreams,” we read that her parents named her Mariama and that the other slaves call her “Herb Doctor” for the healing root and herb poultices of which she is so knowledgeable.
Bryan brings the slaves’ innermost pain to detailed life in these poems, and the effect is quite moving. The poems are accompanied by brightly colored pen, ink and watercolor portraits of the slaves, many of which look like stained glass.
This is a compelling, powerful view of slavery from a virtuoso of the picture book form.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.