Author: Cynthia Grady
Illustrator: Michele Wood
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012
Genre: Picture book, poetry/non-fiction
Audience Age: 9 or 10 years old and up
Themes/topics: Slavery, quilts, quilt patterns, Underground Railroad, slave music, poetry
Opening Sentences: (This is an excerpt from the first poem.)
The finds of archaeologists beneath
Dilapidated cabins down the hill:
Some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons
And squirrels –
The dig won’t yield the stolen, lost, withheld:
Shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons.
Synopsis: Intended for older children, this is not a storybook, but rather a collection of poems that evoke the experiences of slaves in the Deep South. Each poem’s title is that of a quilt pattern, and each has ten lines of ten syllables each, imitating the square shape of a quilt block. Quoting the author from the introduction to the book, “Each poem … reflects a metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America” and “To reflect the three layers of a quilt, I’ve engaged three references in each poem: a biblical or spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing or fiber arts reference.” Each page includes some factual matter, and each facing page is an illustration that incorporates the quilt pattern and builds on the words of the poem.
You may read more about the author’s reasons for writing this book, and how she wrote it, in this blog post on the publisher’s website.
There is a difference of opinion on whether or not quilts were used as a kind of code to help escaping slaves. This idea could be introduced to children as something that might have happened, rather than being a certain fact, but it would add an extra dimension to the reading and discussion of this book.
There are many possible art projects that could enhance the experience of this book, recreating the quilt patterns using cut construction paper, colored modeling clay, scraps of fabric glued onto a paper backdrop, or children could be shown how to do basic quilting.
Nickleodeon’s Parents Connect website has a simple Underground Railroad quilt project.
A tie-in to writing would be to challenge children to try to write their own unrhymed poems with ten lines of ten syllables each, or more simply, to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and to write a poem in any form expressing those thoughts.
To explore how quilts may have been used as codes, there is a lesson plan from Citizenship and Immigration Canada about quilt codes.
There are many links to quilt-related lesson plans compiled on this page by the Drexel company. These lesson plans cover not only history and art, but even geometry and other subjects.
Availability: Readily available in hardcover.
Every Friday, bloggers join together to share picture book reviews and resources, thanks to author Susanna Leonard Hill’s brainchild, “Perfect Picture Book Fridays.” Susanna then adds the books (and links to the reviews) to a comprehensive listing by subject on her blog. Find the entire listing at her “Perfect Picture Books.”