"Sweet potatoes in our bellies, molasses still sweet on our mouths, we're on our way. Master and Mistress at the great house don't tell us slaves nothing. We children listen and carry back the news to our folk." - The Listeners by Gloria Whelan, Illustrated by Mike Benny
During one of the family vacations I took as a child, I visited a plantation in South Carolina. I remember the impressive moss filled trees, the large home, and the tour guides dressed in hoop dresses. As a middle grade student, I was also very aware that part of the history of the home included slavery. Today marks an important day in American history. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, thereby alerting the nation of his intention to free slaves within the rebellious states. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation.
The Listeners, the newest picture book in the Tales of Young Americans Series, depicts the life of Ella May, a fictional slave girl living in 1860, the time right before Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States. Like so many slave children living on a plantation, Ella May helps pick cotton along with her parents. Her friends, too young for the back-breaking work, take care of the animals, watch the smallest children and run errands. But at night they take part in the most important work of all--they hide near the plantation windows and listen for news. They have little control over their own lives, but at least they can listen and report back to their families with news regarding their fate. One spectacular night they hear uplifting news and rejoice at the hope of freedom.
Shown through a child's eyes, author Gloria Whelan's portrayal of life on a plantation will help children better understand the history of slavery in America. Her lyrical descriptions are detailed enough to convey the realities of slavery like harsh masters, separation of families and hard labor without becoming overly graphic. Emotion filled illustrations by Mike Benny show the hardships, fear and sadness while also reflecting the joyous occasions of worship, family time spent together and the exciting moments of hope. The gorgeous cover artwork of Ella May in a field surrounded by cotton and glorious blue skies sets a perfect tone for the book. I did not share this title with my preschooler but plan to read it to her in a couple of years when she can more easily comprehend the subject matter. Appropriate for children in elementary school, the book is a good selection for public and elementary school libraries and also would work perfectly as a literature resource for Black History Month studies.
The Listeners provides a thought provoking introduction to the journey from slavery to freedom. The election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States was a major turning-point in American history and brought on the hope for freedom, equality, and opportunity for all. That hope echoes through the pages of this book.
The Listeners by Gloria Whelan, Illustrated by Mike Benny. Sleeping Bear Press; (September 2009); 32 pages; ISBN 9781585364190
Book Source: Review copy provided for free by Sleeping Bear Press (View my full disclosure statement for more information about my reviews.)
Related links, activities and printables:
Gloria Whelan - Author Website
Mike Benny - Illustrator Website
The Listeners Teacher's Guide
New York State Library - Image of Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 1862
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