Because of slavery, we simply don’t know as much as we should about extraordinary Africans in the Americas. But luckily, in this renaissance of children’s literature, we’re getting some amazing books about slavery & slaves’ lives, written by #ownvoices and by non-PoC. Two great ones that come to mind are Etched in Clay by the late Andrea Cheng & Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford & Gregory Christie.
I’ve been reflecting on slave stories and slavery for several reasons. One; I recently had the pleasure of hearing Ta-Nehesi Coates speak about the lasting effects of slavery on the fabric of America. Two; the other day, someone asked me about children’s books that are helpful for easing into a discussion about slavery with a white child. While it’s very understandable to want to shield your child from the horrors of slavery, it’s quite a position of privilege to be able to. Black children don’t have that privilege. That being said…there are several books that introduce slavery from a position of humanity and hope. Lift Your Light a Little Higher is one of those books.
Stephen Bishop was extraordinary. He was an adventurous cave-explorer and guide who happened to be enslaved. As a tour guide of the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, he had a great sense of pride and agency; underground was his world. He was incredibly knowledgeable of the cave’s winding trails & dangerous chasms and he even discovered new creatures! Lift Your Light a Little Higher takes us back to around 1840 and is in first person; Stephen leads the reader on a journey while reflecting on his life, enslavement and legacy. Though he’s proud of being known far and wide, he says “…being known is not the same as being free.” When it comes down to it, he’s still a slave. He longs to read and write and eventually leaves his mark on stone for all to see; an assertion of his power.
Henson does a great job of using known information about Stephen to create a book that honors his spirit and voice. She lifted her light to shine on Stephen, creating a book that, I think, he would be proud of. I interpret this book as Henson telling his story while simultaneously telling the reader about her journey to uncover his story; lines like “sometimes you just got to go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold” suggest this. I also like how she comments on indigenous peoples’ presence in the caves and on the land. Stephen is aware, as a black, enslaved man, that he is on indigenous land and contemplates his legacy.
Collier’s art is, as usual, powerful and creative. His collages takes us deep inside the dark and mysterious caverns. Stephen’s big brown eyes and confident expression visually show us his strength. Collier uses many beautiful shades of brown to create the peaceful interior of the caves that Stephen found respite within. I always really enjoy Collier’s art; there’s so much depth to it.
Before reading this book, I didn’t know Stephen Bishop and now I do (and so will many children). When I travel down to Mammoth Caves, I’ll look for him and while in his space, I’ll think of him and the legacy he left for all to see. He was of the shadows but shone brightly! People of color always find a way to persevere despite oppression; part of his rebellion was his determination to learn and leave his mark as…S-T-E-P-H-E-N.
This book is sure to create lots of important conversation in classrooms and households about black history. I especially hope that it’s being used in Kentucky classrooms!
Recommended for: 1st grade and up
Great for: Role Models, Inner Strength, African American, U.S .History, Black History, Determination, Slavery, Slave Narratives, Family, Curiosity, Kentucky
Book Info: Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen-Bishop: Slave Explorer by Heather Henson/Illustrated by Bryan Collier, 2016 A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster)), ISBN: 9781481420952