The recent furor over two picture books with themes of slavery and cooking—Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall’s One Fine Dessert and Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington (which ended up being withdrawn by Scholastic last month)—highlights the difficulty of presenting slavery for the youngest readers. How do you present this horrific practice without sugarcoating, as the smiling faces of enslaved children and adults do in these books? And what elements of enslaved person’s lives do you emphasize—only the achievements, or the pain, vulnerability, and loss of dignity?
Don Tate’s biography Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015) achieves that balance. Drawing on Horton’s own writings, biographies and histories, and archival sources, this picture book for elementary-age readers begins with his listening to sermons and surreptitiously peeking over the shoulders of white children to learn the alphabet. Tate shows Horton scavenging books, and the sad moment when the master split up his family and sent him alone to another plantation near the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Misfortune turned into opportunity when Horton sold his master’s vegetables on the campus and impressed the students with the original verses he recited, which ultimately led to the publication of his works. But fame did not lead to freedom, and things got worse for the poet in the years leading to the Civil War.
Tate, who is both author and illustrator, offers a wide range of expressions, from Horton’s pride at learning to read on his own and then achieving publication and a wide audience for his poetry, to his grief at being separated from his family and his fear when the slaveowners make it a crime for slaves to read and write. The illustrations, in soft palettes, convey the emotional power of Horton’s verses. For instance, when Horton’s owner refuses to let him buy his freedom from the proceeds of his books and “George was devastated,” we see that devastation in the form of an excerpt from one of his poems, illustrated in the popular typeface of the nineteenth century. Readers come to understand the precariousness of Horton’s life as a slave; his masters made him pay dearly for every achievement. What he earned through his hard work and talent was, until Emancipation, never his own. Still, art provides hope, as “Words loosened the chains of bondage long before his last day as a slave.”