Friday, February 24, 2012
Book Review: Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, by Lisa Cline-Ransome (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Just in time for Black History Month is a handsome new picture book biography of iconic abolitionist, orator and author Frederick Douglass, written and illustrated by the husband-wife team of author Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James E. Ransome.
Told in the first person by Frederick, the story introduces us to the young slave's boyhood and the influence that the power of reading had on his life. Raised by his grandmother as a young child, Frederick was sent away at the tender age of eight from the Maryland plantation that had always been his home to live with the brother-in-law of his mistress in Baltimore. His new mistress, Sophia Auld, had never had a slave before, and treated Frederick more like a paid servant, even teaching him his letters. When her husband found out about their lessons, he was furious, and his wife was forbidden from teaching her young slave:
"He should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do," he shouted..."If you teach him how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave."
But once given a taste of learning, Frederick was not to be stopped, and he found every opportunity to practice his letters in secret, even buying a newspaper with coins he saved from tips from running errands for his master. But when his master died, Frederick was sent back to the plantation that was his birthplace, where he was sent to work in the fields with the other slaves. His thirst for learning, however, would not die, and he began teaching other slaves to read, despite the very real dangers. And soon he was plotting to escape, using his knowledge of words to set him free by forging passes to run to the North.
This book ends somewhat abruptly with Douglass plotting his escape; an author's note tells the reader that the escape attempt was unsuccessful but Frederick succeeded three years later in escaping to New York, where he changed his name and became a famous abolitionist.
The text is based on Douglass' s own Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Back matter includes a short bibliography, and a timeline of Douglass' life, which like the narrative, ends with his escape to New York in 1838.
Frederick's story is riveting, and it leaves the reader wanting to find out more about Douglass' life. This book would make an excellent read-aloud for classrooms, but it is not a book that could be recommended for classroom reports, since it focuses on a narrow segment of Douglass' life. However, it could enrich a unit on African-American history, abolitionism, and slavery. I particularly enjoyed the traditional artwork rendered in acrylic and oil paint; the rich blues in particular are evocative of the Maryland shore where Douglass spent many years of his boyhood. The artwork has a monumental quality which fits the story of the great man Douglass was to become.