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.