Monday, October 3, 2016

Non-fiction-ish Review: Lift Your Light a Little Higher by Heather Henson.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: the story of Stephen Bishop: slave explorer by Heather Henson. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. unpgd. Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, September, 2016. 978148181420952. (Review from finished copy courtesy of publisher)

When I first read this back in July, my first impulse was to feature it in Non-Fiction Monday post until I realized that it is a fictionalized biography since it is written in the first person. I never did get around to writing a review. The book got buried on the bottom of the "to review" pile. Last month, Bookends Blog featured it along with James Madison Hemings in an article entitled Fictionalization in Non-fiction. I recently uncovered and reread the book while reorganizing the mess that is my desk. My review is followed by a couple of thoughts on the trend of fictionalizing Non-fiction.

Stephen Bishop was born in Kentucky around 1821. As a teenager, his master decided he would work as a guide in Mammoth Cave. He learned the cave, over 400 miles of mapped trails. He was not the only slave guide but he became the most famous because he was intelligent and well-spoken. He made many discoveries but did not receive credit for them because he was a slave. He quietly taught himself to read by helping tourists candle-write their names on the cave ceilings. His death is a mystery. The author writes in her author note that because of the dearth of information about his life, she chose to imagine him telling his story.

The illustrator, Bryan Collier, a large man who doesn't like small spaces, visited the caves for research and saw Stephen's candle-written signature. His dark hued collages invoke wonder and claustrophobia in equal measures. Each one invites the reader to pause and pore. Each one is more powerful than the last. The double-page spread where the author writes, "Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule; bought and sold along with the land I work," depicts an imposing ox with dark silhouettes superimposed on his body. Powerful stuff made especially jarring because with the page turn, the illustration depicts white tourists apparently having the time of their lives. 

Share this picture book widely. It's a powerful conversation starter. Don't forget to share the back-matter. I can't wait to begin some interesting conversations with my students.

I remember reading Jacqueline Woodson's Newbery Honor-winning Show Way aloud to most of my students (from grades 2 to 8) the day after the award was announced in 2007. I was impressed not only by the beauty and design of the book, but also by the fact though, Show Way was a family story, Woodson had it classified as a work of fiction since all of the elements could not be verified. She did the same thing with her luminous memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Invariably, students in class after class asked, "Is this true?" I asked them what they thought and after listening to their answers shared the answer. They proceeded to ponder big T and little t-truth. 

Only eight libraries in my cooperative own Lift Your Light a Little Higher so far. Seven of them have catalogued the book as biography. Technically, it's not though I'm tempted to put it there in my library myself. Thoughts?

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