From Goodreads: Welcome to Mammoth Cave. It’s 1840 and my name’s Stephen Bishop. I’ll be your guide, so come with me, by the light of my lantern, into the deepest biggest cave in all of the United States. Down here, beneath the earth, I’m not just a slave. I’m a pioneer. I know the cave’s twists and turns. It taught me to not be afraid of the dark. And watching all these people write their names on the ceiling? Well, it taught me how to read too. Imagine that. A slave, reading. But like I said, down here I’m not just a slave. I’m a guide. I’m a man. And this is my story.
As soon as I read the review of this in the Horn Book I purchased it. Not only does our second grade study slavery (in the context of the Underground Railroad) in the spring, but our third grade does a science unit on caves in the fall. It felt like the perfect bridge between the two grades.
Like all picture book biographies there is a storyline that follows Bishop’s life that is followed up by a historical author’s note that provides more context. I have mixed feelings about that format because I think that kids often skip the two pages of text unless they’re really interested. I suppose that’s fine if they’re getting some good tidbits and thinking points in the story (they do here). However, I think it makes these books perfect for classroom settings where teachers can provide further context and connection and will also be able to read the note aloud to students, ensuring they get that extra information.
I thought the idea of having Bishop tell his own story was an interesting choice. It certainly brings the reader into his life story. I think it also gives the man a voice when he really didn’t have one. According to the note at the end he didn’t leave any real personal record of himself and there wasn’t much left by his white owners or other historical records either. I will point out that this is not #ownvoices, so take that into consideration especially since the book does give a voice to a slave who never really had one.
I’m not sure these are the absolute best illustrations I’ve seen by Collier, but they really tell the story. I actually think the print job on the book could have been better and that the paper and print quality diminished them a bit. Most, if not all the pages (I’m sorry I don’t have the book in front of me right now) have a split level. You see above ground and also below ground which fits perfectly with the idea of the split in Bishops life: above ground- slave, below ground-just a man. There are white people in the pictures, but Bishop is, appropriately, front and center.
Both the cave system and Bishop made for a fascinating picture book biography and would make a good addition to any biography collection.
Side note, going back to print quality. The paper was kind of thin and a little too shiny. It felt kind of cheap. And the dust jacket was like a good several centimeters too long for the hard cover which made it strangely floppy and weird to put into a Gaylord cover. Wth print company? Wth, publisher? Do better. Make nice picture books that will last. The lack of quality kind of makes your second-rating of books about people of color show.