I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery


This rich and intricate collection of poems chronicles the various experiences of American slaves. Drawn together through imagery drawn from quilting and fiber arts, each poem is spoken from a different perspective: a house slave, a mother losing her daughter to the auction block, a blacksmith, a slave fleeing on the Underground Railroad.

This moving and eloquent set of poems, brought to life by vivid and colorful artwork from Michele Wood, offers a timeless witness to the ...

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This rich and intricate collection of poems chronicles the various experiences of American slaves. Drawn together through imagery drawn from quilting and fiber arts, each poem is spoken from a different perspective: a house slave, a mother losing her daughter to the auction block, a blacksmith, a slave fleeing on the Underground Railroad.

This moving and eloquent set of poems, brought to life by vivid and colorful artwork from Michele Wood, offers a timeless witness to the hardship endured by America's slaves. Each poem is supplemented by a historical note.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Newcomer Grady’s compact poems about the lives of slaves cover an emotional range from gossamer (“Like the wren’s/ song, she hits the grace note just so”) to leaden (“drag my heart clean/ out of my chest”). Quilting runs through the poems as a theme (“Before I know, I’m rocking with the rhythm of the stitching”), and Wood (I See the Rhythm of Gospel) paints the slaves and their surroundings against backgrounds of quilt patterns and African textiles. Swirls of checks and triangles unfurl along with the movement of the stylized figures, softening the nightmare quality of scenes like one in which an overseer carries a girl away from her mother—“This morn he come for my baby girl—she/ done reach her breeding age. Fetch a good price.” The poems appear above detailed notes, opposite Wood’s paintings at right. The notes anticipate classroom use, where discussion will arise from the varied aspects of slavery—companionship between the master’s children and slave children, early horse racing’s domination by slave labor, and more—that Grady covers in this well-researched collection. Ages 10–up. Illustrator’s agent: Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Jan.)
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Fourteen complex, unrhymed poems written in ten lines of ten syllables "to mimic the square shape of a quilt block," depict aspects of African American life in slavery. Added to each poem on its double page is a further explanation of the references included in it: biblical or spiritual, musical, and sewing or fiber arts. Some of the subjects covered include what archeologists find under slave cabins, the bounty hunter chasing fugitives on the Underground Railroad, the plight of the clumsy house slave, the educated freed slave, a lashed slave, a blacksmith working on an anvil, the taking of a baby girl away from her parents to be sold, and a final praise of quilting. The full page, acrylic on canvas paintings display symbols relating to the poems' texts along with quilting patterns: the Rail Fence with its green and gray bars has a rearing black horse superimposed; the Wagon Wheel spirals of black and blue display "a wagonload of sadness" as we watch the baby taken from the mother's arms. There are also decorative abstract patterns adding to the emotional images. There is a strip of the referenced quilt pattern below each poem and enlargements of all fourteen on the rear jacket. Both author and illustrator add explanatory notes, plus there is a bibliography. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—Grady combines the tradition of American folk-art quilting with a series of original poems written in unrhymed verse that depict the hardships of American slaves. On each spread, a full-page illustration on the right depicts a scene from a slave's life, while a corresponding poem appears on the top left-hand page, with corroborating historical facts listed below. Fourteen traditional quilt patterns are used, and the name of the particular pattern appears above each poem. Some selections are more powerful than others. In particular, the last poem, "Basket," poignantly describes the feelings of tiredness and oppression as well as the solace and hope that embody the slave's harsh existence, "I lay my stitches down and troubles fall away…I'm breathing with the rhythm of my quilting…the threads that weave the fabric of my life." The author notes that she has included a biblical, spiritual, and musical reference in each poem to reflect the three layers of a quilt and used 10 lines of 10 syllables to mimic the square shape of the quilt block. Using acrylics on canvas, Wood has created striking illustrations that add a masterful visual component to the volume. She successfully draws readers in and brings the characters and their stories to life. She presents the strength and determination of people who have endured unspeakable injustice and hardship with a grace born out of spirituality. This ambitious work offers a bit of poetry, history, folk art, quilting, religion and more. It will definitely fill a niche in libraries.—Carole Phillips, Greenacres Elementary School, Scarsdale, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Enslaved African-Americans voice the weariness, drudgery, agony and dreams of their lives in a beautiful and informative collection of poetry and paintings. In her debut title, Grady structures free verse to mirror the patterns of traditional American quilt blocks, variations on a square. In the poems, each 10 lines with 10 syllables per line, the words and thoughts read seamlessly and build to heart-rending finales. They speak of daily lives made bearable by the words of a preacher, the joys of singing and the quiet rhythms of stitching. A woman bent over her basket of scraps can see her "troubles fall / away." A man calming a horse can find a "patchwork field of freedom." Children outside a school building scratch out the alphabet because "[i]t gives us hope; it sings us home." Each poem is accompanied by brief background information on slavery and on the quilt-block pattern that inspired it. Full-page paintings by Wood, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner, pulsate with vibrant colors and intensity. Each incorporates the quilt pattern that served as Grady's inspiration into a collage-styled portrait. Readers will find themselves poring over the many details in the art and connecting them with the verses. A powerful grouping of thought-provoking poems and brilliantly designed paintings. (author's note, illustrator's note, bibliography) (Poetry. 10 & up)
Abby McGanney Nolan
…exceptional…Throughout the book, the interplay between pictures and words, including the poems and succinct historical background, is deeply impressive, as seamless as it is stirring.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802853868
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 10/25/2011
  • Pages: 34
  • Sales rank: 239,099
  • Age range: 10 - 13 Years
  • Lexile: 990L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 12.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Cynthia Grady is a poet and a librarian at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. I Lay My Stiches Down will be her first published book. In her spare time, Cynthia quilts. Visit her website at cynthiagrady.com.

Michele Wood is a painter, illustrator, designer, and writer. She received the American Book Award for her first book, Going Back Home, and the Coretta Scott King Award for the illustration in her book I See the Rhythm. Michele lives in Georgia. Visit her website at michelewood.com.

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Read an Excerpt

I Lay My Stitches Down

Poems of American Slavery
By Cynthia Grady

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2012 Cynthia Grady
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-5386-8

Chapter One

Log Cabin

The finds of archaeologists beneath dilapidated cabins down the hill: some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons and squirrels — hard remains of suppers stalked by moonlight, faith, starvation. Caches, too, of divination: sea shells, broken beads, and bundled roots suggest how slaves survived a knotted life of cornmeal, cruelty, death. The dig won't yield the stolen, lost, withheld: shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons.

Archaeologists excavating the areas where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived have discovered artifacts that resemble ritual objects similar to those used in West African religious practices. These artifacts have been found buried in symbolic arrangements and clustered near doorways and chimneys — thresholds for people and spirits.

Cotton Boll

I need the music of my forebears from Afrik, but take the mending to my lap and work beside the Missus' chair. A spell of quiet sewing, restful breath — it soothe my soul, dangling by a thread that been spun like cotton fiber grown and pinched on this hell place. Before I know, I'm rocking with the rhythm of the stitching, humming low the melody of "Gilead." A balm for hunger, sorrow, heartache, yes, he is.

A healing ointment found in Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan River was so curative that it was equal in worth to salt, a precious commodity in ancient times. In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah warns that not even this balm's healing qualities are enough to rescue sinners from God's judgment. Interestingly, the traditional spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead" refers to Jesus of the New Testament, who would heal all, regardless of their sins.

Underground Railroad

Like a hyena on the hunt, you know, he opportunistic, unspecialized. The bounty hunter prowl the riverbank. He use the wind to his advantage and he listen; he watch intently. A slave to greed, the hunter aine no match for this old pilgrim in the woods. He don't quite hear the owl that call my name to take me to the water where the current runs less swift. I wait — then thread my way to freedomland.

Helping slaves escape to freedom through the network of people called the Underground Railroad was highly secretive, dangerous work that involved deception of all kinds — especially since slave owners often hired bounty hunters to track down runaway slaves. Using bird calls was one way for slaves to communicate with one another without being detected.

A pilgrim is a person of religious devotion who embarks on a spiritual journey. For some slaves, the quest for freedom was a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.

"Take Me to the Water" is the name of a spiritual referring to baptism by immersion in a river or lake. Here, the phrase also signifies crossing the Ohio River into safety.

Traditional Fish

Come August, Young Master and me runs through the cool of the hick'ry nut grove to find our friend canoeing downstream, smooth as a needle through silk. We wade in, a-whistling, beach his boat. Fish the old river with hand spears — sharpened bone tied to wooden shaft — not a pole and line. Aim low on account of the trick the light play in shallow waters. We thank Creation, church-like, for the catch, and pray we three be best friends forever.

When enslaved children were still too young to work the fields, they spent their days playing after the morning chores of slopping hogs or milking cows, sweeping or gardening. They often played with children in the master's family. Before American Indians were "removed" to reservations by the U.S. government, they often lived near plantation communities in varying degrees of friendship and cooperation with slaves and slaveholders.

Broken Dishes

She always needling me. "Add some more salt." Or, "Girl, why cain't you move faster than that?" Her voice so shrill, it make your skin goose up. I move fast, all right. A heap of gold-rimmed plates brighter than the halo on the head of Baby Jesus in one hand, platter with green beans and collards in the other, I done trip over the piano bench. Lord, those flyin' plates look like angels, but I 'spect tomorrow be the fields for me.

Working as a domestic slave had some advantages over field work. Often, though not always, house slaves lived within the master's household rather than in the slave cabins, so living conditions were better. But being under the constant watchful eye of the master's family came with its own set of problems. If the master and his wife were not particularly attached to their house slaves, they would threaten the slaves with being sent to work in the fields if their work or attitude was found unsatisfactory.


Excerpted from I Lay My Stitches Down by Cynthia Grady Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Grady. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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