Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History: Walter Dean Myers and Floyd Cooper
February 23, 2017
Book: Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History
Author: Walter Dean Myers
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Age Range: 5-9
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History is a picture book biography written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. In straightforward fashion, it traces the life of a man named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, born a slave in Maryland, who eventually (changing his name along the way) becomes a writer and leader of the abolitionist movement, as well as an advocate for women's rights. Myers gives particular focus to Frederick's quest to learn to read. His owner's wife starts to teach him, but her husband fears that learning to read will "make (Frederick) unfit to be a slave." He's right about that, in fact, and Frederick eventually escapes to Massachusetts.
This is a very text-dense picture book that refers (though it doesn't dwell upon) to mature matters, including the fact hat Frederick was beaten for arguing with his master. I think it's more suitable for kids in elementary school than earlier. Reading it with kids will of course spark discussion about slavery, the causes of the Civil War, early women's rights, and the militant abolitionist John Brown. Like this:
"When he was nineteen, Frederick fell in love with a free black woman, Anna Murray. But he was a slave and could not be with her as he chose. The lure of freedom because almost unbearable, but to try to escape was a risky business. Slaveholders did not want to lose their precious "property." When slaves who tried to escape were caught, they were often punished severely.
Frederick new he had to take the chance!"
I do have one quibble about the book. The text skips over the fact that British sympathizers bought Douglass' freedom from his owner. This information is included in a timeline at the end of the book, as is the text of the document officially freeing him. But as I was reading the book I found it odd that this wasn't mentioned. I'm sure that Myers had a reason, but to me it was confusing. The timeline is helpful, though.
I was quite pleased with Cooper's illustrations, rendered in erasers and oils on board. The old-fashioned sepia tones transport readers to the time of the story. We see Frederick as mostly serious throughout the book, but it's a picture of him as a boy enrapt as the mistress of the house reads to him that tugs at the viewers heart.
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History covers a lot of historical ground, educating young readers about Douglass himself, as well about America in the 1800s. Myers does a nice job, I think, of humanizing Frederick, while keeping the story focused on the facts. This, I think, is the right balance for a book for younger readers. His focus on the power of words also comes through without being didactic, and delivers a more powerful message about education because of that restraint. Frederick Douglass would be a strong addition to any library's biography collection.
Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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