Feb 11, 2017 - Uncategorized    Comments Off on The Year’s First Newbery

The Year’s First Newbery

Since my reading time has been limited of late, I figured I’d get 2017’s only short Newbery out of the way; Freedom Over Me:  Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan is, essentially, a text-heavy picture book.  (Also title-heavy, when it comes right down to it!)  The illustrations are not necessarily my style, but I’m not a student of art, so I can’t offer an informed critique there.  Unfortunately, I can offer a more informed critique of the text, and while I wanted to love this book–I really did–the sad truth is that I just didn’t.  I loved the concept–the concept was certainly worthy of a Newbery–but the execution fell flat.

To be perfectly honest, I loved the concept more when I thought it was a bit more factually based.  I didn’t realize that the only facts the author had to work from were the names and prices of the slaves; he created not only the occupations of each one but the ages as well.  The title was a problem for me here, honestly.  The phrase ‘brought to life’ implies more of a factual basis than Bryan had.  Switching it out with ‘imagined’ would suit me better, because really, isn’t that exactly what he did?

The bigger problem, however, was the unevenness of the writing.  Some of it was fine for the setting, if not as sparely powerful as I would have preferred.  Some it it, however, was frankly jarring.  We aren’t all Mark Twain, so I’m not faulting Bryan for not attempting to write in dialect, but am I really supposed to believe that slaves born in Africa, who learned English as slaves without benefit of any formal education, thought statements like this?

Hearing the slaves

singing the songs

Mulvina and I created

reminds me

of the rich musical world

so integral and natural

in African daily and ceremonial life.

Or this?

My work has made this house

a model of beauty and comfort.

I’m loaned to other estates

to design their gardens

and bring style to their parlors.

Or this?

I am thinking

if I were free,

I would acquire my own

acres of land.

I would hire

men and women

from cities and farms

to work and study the land

with me.

Earnings from our labor

would benefit all of us,

the workers.

Those are not the believable voices of slaves.  Even some of those sentiments feel modern, frankly, but the language–the language is that of a lecture given on what those slaves may have thought or believed or known or felt.  Bryan could have created a powerful book using simple language and kept the first person; he could have created a fascinating book using more of the language he used if he’d switched to third person and altered the semantics to make that work.  Instead, he put modern-feeling lectures into the mouths of people who could never have expressed themselves that way.  They could have expressed themselves eloquently, mind–you don’t have to be or sound educated to be eloquent.  They just couldn’t have expressed themselves the way Ashley Bryan imagined in this book.  Ultimately, that problem kept me from connecting with the book in any meaningful way.  I wanted it to be a different–a better–book than it was.

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