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Book Review: The Listeners (Tales of Young Americans Series) by Gloria Whelan, Illustrated by Mike Benny

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147 years ago today (September 22nd), the first Emancipation Proclamation was issued by American President Abraham Lincoln. This major, initial step towards ending slavery in America brought freedom to thousands of slaves the day it went into effect. The latest release in Sleeping Bear Press’ Tales of Young American Series takes young readers back to a time when little girls and boys slaved all day long picking cotton, facing uncertain futures over which they and their parents held no control.

Written by the celebrated author of historical fiction for children Gloria Whelan, The Listeners relates the story of Ella May, a young slave girl. Told in the first person, Whelan’s writing is careful and measured. Objectively and matter-of-factly relating the events of her life, Ella May speaks to us from Whelan’s pen in cadences influenced by the speech of southern slaves. She calmly relates her daily routine and that of her family, days of hard work, poverty, and segregation that are followed by long evenings spent listening beneath the windows at the great house.

With no control over their future, and no access to outside news, or upcoming plans of the Master, Ella May and her young friends' listening trips are the community’s sole access to vital information concerning their lives. Mike Benny’s rich watercolour paintings are particularly evocative during the scenes of listening. The gap between the lives of the children in the great house and Ella May is strikingly exposed through Benny’s artwork against Whelan’s understated text.

Allowing children to draw their own conclusions, Whelan carefully creates scenes of segregation, lack of property, benevolent neglect, harsh taskmasters, forced familial separation, and other hallmarks of slavery. Still, her writing is appropriate for young children. Graphic depictions of violence are absent from the text and illustrations, as children are led into an experience of the injustices of slavery while avoiding the worst of its brutalities.

Particularly heart-rending is the segregated worship service, followed by a jubilant outdoor time of praise in the forest. Clinging to God’s deliverance of the Israelites in the book of Exodus, they wait in anticipation of their own delivery from slavery. They wait for their own Moses.

By the book’s end I was swept away in tears of hopeful sorrow. The joy exhibited by these people at the first glimpse of freedom at the beginning of a long road to their complete deliverance from bondage rendered me incapable of answering my children’s questions as I sobbed. It is a rare occurrence for a picture book to move me so deeply, to dig into the caches of shared human experiences and longings that we all hold in common.

The Listeners succinctly captures a vital moment, a turning point, the first glimpse of dawn after a long, dark night. Made personal and accessible through Ella May’s observations, this title is an unforgettable introduction to a painful, but likewise unforgettable period in history

A free downloadable teaching guide from Sleeping Bear Press uses The Listeners to further explore the themes of democracy, equality, and the Underground Railroad. Extension activities are provided for language arts, geography, and more.

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About Jennifer Bogart