Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Lilly Ann Granderson was a slave who understood the power of being able to read, and risked her life teach other slaves. This is an important view of the pre-Civil war life of slaves that is perfect for U.S. history classes from elementary school on up.

Picture book, biography, nonfiction
by Janet Halfmann; illustrated by London Ladd
Interest level: Kindergarten and up
4 out of 5 stars

Janet Halfmann, the author of Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, did a lot of historical and genealogical research to obtain as many facts as possible about Lilly Ann Granderson. Lilly Ann’s story helps young readers see that there were laws and many ways that slave owners used to maintain a position of power.

The strength of Midnight Teacher is that it tells the true story of a woman who was resilient and persevered despite threat to her life. Showing how slaves toiled all day in the fields and then snuck away to learn at night shows how strong the desire to learn was. The reference materials listed in the back of the book are another strength.

I do feel that the author glosses over some points and I wish that they had been explained with more realism. One example is when the text states, “When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her. They even found an old ragged blue-back speller for Lilly Ann to use and keep.” London Ladd’s illustration to accompany the text depicts Lilly Ann as unsmiling, as compared to the white children, with dirty and frayed clothing, no shoes, holding a ratty book.

I view the situation as the white children playing with Lilly Ann like a toy; not seeing her as a playmate, but like a doll to use in their make-believe. Suggesting they gave Lilly Ann the book to keep is problematic because I am guessing they just didn’t notice that she had it. The book was beat up and something they would cast away without a thought. I have problems with the reasoning that seems to persist in books about slaves, that suggests that household slaves were part of the family. While they may not have experienced the grueling, physical toil that marked the existence of field slaves, household slaves were still viewed as property and not people.

Another minor irritation is when describing the beginning of the Civil War, the author states that “President Abraham Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery.” While this is technically true, it is a vast generalization of Lincoln’s view of slavery and ignores the fact that he did not want to see slavery spread because of economic inequalities for white people and he, in fact, did not believe that black people were equal to whites. While this is a much larger discussion than is needed in the pages of Lilly Ann Granderson’s story for young readers, I do feel that authors need to start sharing more accurate statements about Lincoln’s views instead of repeating the mythology of Lincoln being anti-slavery.

My two complaints about glossed-over depictions of slavery should not diminish from the importance of this book in classrooms. Students need to know that there were other civil rights figures besides Harriet Tubman.

The Youngest Marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist

Audrey Faye Hendricks is one of the lesser-known figures of the civil rights movement. At the age of nine, she played a significant role in wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws.

Picture book, biography, Civil Rights movement
Interest level: grades 1-5; Reading level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars

This is a strong addition to Civil Rights books that have been published for children in recent years. Children often only hear of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I feel it is important to expand the narrative to include some of the other human stories of the movement.

What makes Audrey Faye Hendricks unique and such a great story for children, is that she was nine years old when she first stood up to injustice and made a difference. Not only is this story important because it expands the scope of the Civil Rights movement for young readers, but because it gives them a hero that is their age. That’s an important message for children — seeking to end injustice is not restricted by age.

The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton are perfect. While they have a comic-like feel, they are still powerful. This scene of Hendricks in a jail cell is an evocative depiction of how it must have felt for Hendricks as the youngest marcher arrested. It was tough for her to remain strong in those conditions.

The back of the book includes an Author’s Note that tells more about Hendricks, including information about her adult life, a Civil Rights time line, a recipe for Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, and a list of bibliographic sources.

This book is well-researched and presented in a sensitive manner for young readers. It helps children understand that there were many people involved in gaining civil rights for people of color, not just Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

The youngest marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist
by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-0070-1

Freedom in Congo Square

by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
little bee books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4998-0103-3
Picture book, nonfiction, narrative, diversity, African American
Interest level: 1st grade and up
Reading level: 1.9
5 out of 5 stars

This book does everything right! Carole Boston Weatherford tells the story of Congo Square in New Orleans, and conveys a vital piece of African American history that highlights the culture and dreams that slavery was not able to snuff out.

The book starts with a foreword by Freddi Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert. While you can jump right into the story, you really should not ignore this foreword. Evans tells us that Congo Square was the one place where both enslaved and free people of African heritage were able to gather on Sunday afternoons in New Orleans. They worked the other days of the week toiling in the fields and houses, but law set aside Sunday as work-free and for worship. In Congo Square, people danced and musicians played instruments that they knew from their homelands. It was the mix of these styles of music that led to the birth of jazz, and New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz.

Weatherford starts the story by contrasting the backbreaking work performed by slaves with the hope they held inside as they counted down the days to Congo Square — “Monday’s, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.” Weatherford conveys the horrors of slavery in a way that is appropriate for children, “The dreaded lash, too much to bear. Four more days to Congo Square.”

The illustrations by R. Gregory Christie are perfectly rendered to match the story as it develops. During Monday through Saturday, the colors are less vibrant and the figures of the slaves are stiff, shown either standing ramrod straight or bent stiffly at the waist. On Sunday, in Congo Square, the colors are vibrant and the figures flow and sway reflecting a freedom that is only possible in Congo Square.

Other smaller details add to the overall excellence of Freedom in Congo Square. I absolutely love the thick, quality paper that the publisher used. For me, it added to the joy of reading the book, and signifies the importance of the work. The author has included a glossary and Author’s Note in the back that adds further dimension to the story. The foreword teaches readers about the history of African Americans in New Orleans and sets the stage for Weatherford and Christie to bring in the emotions of the slaves in the main story.

Freedom in Congo Square is the perfect blend of celebrating moments of joy while not ignoring the work and oppression forced upon the African American slaves. While targeted to readers age 5 through 9, this book can be shared with students of all ages who are studying the history of slavery in America. It would also be great if music teachers would use this book to introduce a study of jazz history.


Google Maps provides a view of present-day Congo Square. You can explore the virtual Congo Square by clicking on this link: https://goo.gl/maps/q91HXaMZxNK2 Congo Square sculpture

Congo Square sculpture
Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans. A plaque reads: “During the late 17th century and well into the 18th centuries. slaves gathered at Congo Square on Sundays and sang, danced, and drummed in authentic West Aftrican style. This rich legacy of African celebration is the foundation of New Orleans’ unique musical traditions, including Jazz.” Sculpture by Adewale S. Adenle, dedicated April, 2010. Photo October 9, 2014 (by Kent Kanouse).

Watch a recent celebration of heritage, music, dance, and freedom in Congo Square

The Congo Square Preservation Society hosts Sundays at Congo Square where “the sound of drums still echo and call for people to gather and connect to their ancestral memory, invent new creative expressions and organize African-American artists and communities.” (Congo Square Preservation Society website: http://www.congosquarepreservationsociety.org/who-we-are/4587517887)