Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this riveting autobiography, Baltimore janitor Leon Walter Tillage reflects on his life with all the vitality of a storyteller gathering his audience around him. He recalls his childhood as an African American sharecropper's son in 1940s North Carolina: "Once you got on a farm you could work a lifetime and never get out of debt." His mother made soup with "pot likker," the liquid left over from cooking collard greens for the Johnsons (the white owners of the farm they worked). His job in the tobacco field was to walk behind his father's plow with a stick and flip up the tobacco; "the dirt would smother it, you see." Each afternoon Leon walked home from school with his friends, and often the white kids' bus would stop so they could throw stones: "So what you would do when they were throwing stones at you, you would start screaming and hollering and begging. They liked that...." These episodes have an unusual immediacy because the book is edited from recorded interviews conducted by Roth, whose daughter heard Tillage at a school assembly; oral histories have a way of stripping away the sentiment and going straight for the moments that are etched forever in the teller's memories. Tillage's words describe a time, only a few short decades back, when Klansmen and Jim Crow laws ruled the South. But he also tells of marching for his rights and of his own triumphs: "There were bad times, but you know, there were rejoicing times, too." Roth's (Martha and the Dragon) dramatic black-and-white collages pay homage to the power of Leon's story, a tale that does more in its gentle way to expose the horrors of racism than most works of fiction ever could. Ages 8-up. (Oct.)
Children's Literature - Marilyn Courtot
Leon Tillage grew up in rural North Carolina. His father was an uneducated sharecropper who could never seem to get out of debt. Leon reminisces about a time when entertainment consisted of listening to family stories, about how poor his family was and how wonderful Christmas was because they would get a small toy and some fruit in their Christmas shoeboxes. He and his brother James did go to school where they learned to read and write. They even taught their mother to read. He talks about discrimination and the real fear that the Klansmen engendered. As he grew older, he became active in the early Civil Rights movement. Then he ended up in Baltimore where he worked for thirty years as the custodian at the Park School. His story, which he tells at an annual assembly, is a tribute to perseverance and to someone who would not just sit by, but became involved in helping himself by acquiring an education.
Children's Literature - Susie Wilde
Leon's Story is the autobiography of a man born in Fuquay, North Carolina in 1936. This short novella is the result of stories captured on tape by Susan Roth, and whose collages decorate its pages. The vignettes from Leon's life span many years of change and are told with simplicity, honesty, and no anger. Leon's father was an uneducated but honest and hard-working sharecropper. On his fifteenth birthday, Leon watched while a car of white boys intentionally killed him. He tells the story of a white man teaching his son to hate, and he tells of the horrors he faced marching Raleigh's streets in non-violent protests during the sixties. Leon speaks without judgment, but readers will most certainly grieve and be enraged and troubled by his descriptions.
Our country's racial history is sometimes hard to understand, but this small book, the autobiography of Leon Tillage, tells part of the story poignantly. Leon talks about growing up as the son of a sharecropper and how the family could never get out from under the debt. His remembrances of seeing his father sitting on the roof watching for Klansmen, and seeing a wealthy boy and his friends run over his father with their automobile on purpose, are grim reminders of a tragic time in our history. Through it all Leon and his family stayed strong, and Leon himself remained a good citizen engaging in peaceful protests. This may be just the book to generate discussions of that period and it will definitely be of use for reluctant readers. KLIATT Codes: JSRecommended for junior and senior high school students. 1997, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 107p, 18cm, 96-43544, $4.95. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Barbara Jo McKee; Libn/Media Dir., Streetsboro H.S., Stow, OH, September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
School Library Journal
Gr 4 Up--This is one man's story, but one that was shared by thousands of African Americans across the United States before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Tillage describes the trials of sharecropping; trying to get an education in an inferior school; and walking a long distance to school while watching a bus full of white children pass him by. The author witnessed the murder of his father when a group of drunken white teenagers ran over the man. What price do you place on a human life? The father of the driver gave Mrs. Tillage 100 dollars and told his son to apologize. He never did. There was never any legal action taken. The events are succinctly and honestly expressed in the author's first-person account. Roth's monochromatic collage art, placed before the beginning of each chapter, documents the sparseness of Tillage's life and its boundaries: home, church, school, work, and the balcony at the movie theater. The last story, "Marching," explains the role of many groups of southerners, representing a number of ethnic groups who supported and helped the marchers. The afterword and note about the genesis of the book are important addenda.--Marie Wright, University Library, Indianapolis, IN
Tillage, a black custodian in a Baltimore private school, reminisces about his childhood as a sharecropper's son in the South, and his youth as a civil-rights protester. He explains the mechanics of sharecropping and segregation, tells of his mistreatment and his father's murder at the hands of white teenagers out to "have some fun," and relates his experiences with police dogs, fire hoses, and jail while following Martin Luther King's ideas of nonviolent protest. Tillage matter-of-factly recounts horrific events, using spare language that is laced with remarkable wisdom, compassion, and optimism. Such gentleness only gives his story more power, as he drives home the harder realities of his childhood. Although the collage illustrations are interesting, they are too moody and remote for the human spirit behind the words, and readers will regret Roth's decisionespecially in light of the boy smiling so brightly on the coverthat "even one photo would be too many for Leon Walter Tillage's words."
From the Publisher
“In this riveting autobiography, Baltimore janitor Leon Walter Tillage reflects on his life with all the vitality of a storyteller gathering his audience around him. He recalls his childhood as an African American sharecropper's son in 1940s North Carolina...Tillage's words describe a time, only a few short decades back, when Klansmen and Jim Crow laws ruled the South...Roth's dramatic black-and-white collages pay homage to the power of Leon's story, a tale that does more in its gentle way to explose the horrors of racism than most works of fiction ever could.” Starred, Publishers Weekly
“The story has great power.” The New York Times Book Review
“The incidents described in his moving personal narrative are transcribed from taped oral testimony...The full strength of character of Leon Tillage and those he represents is revealed in the plain dignity of his words.” Starred, The Horn Book