Rosa and her mama go to school together-in the dark of night, silently, afraid that any noise they hear is a patroller on the lookout for escaped slaves. Their school is literally a hole in the ground, where they and other slaves of all ages gather to form letters out of sticks, scratch letters in the dirt, and pronounce their sounds in whispers. Young Rosa is eager to learn the letters and then the words, because after the words comes reading. But she must have patience, her mama reminds her, and keep her ...
Rosa and her mama go to school together-in the dark of night, silently, afraid that any noise they hear is a patroller on the lookout for escaped slaves. Their school is literally a hole in the ground, where they and other slaves of all ages gather to form letters out of sticks, scratch letters in the dirt, and pronounce their sounds in whispers. Young Rosa is eager to learn the letters and then the words, because after the words comes reading. But she must have patience, her mama reminds her, and keep her letters to herself when she's working on the plantation. If the Master catches them, it'll mean a whipping-one lash for each letter. No matter how slow and dangerous the process might be, Rosa is determined to learn, and pass on her learning to others.
Young listeners will identify with Rosa's struggle to make sense of the strange letters and disparate phonemic sounds, and the feelings of insecurity she has in her ability. They will probably not immediately identify with the threat posed by the patrollers who nearly discover Rosa's secret school one night. The story's achievement is in bridging the gap between that innate understanding and the more foreign notion of being forbidden to learn. "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free," the author notes at the end, quoting Frederick Douglass. This book lets aspiring and new readers of all backgrounds truly understand why.
- Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Young Rosa, a slave, tells how she and her mother creep carefully into the night to arrive at the hidden place where they can learn to read in secret. They are whipped if it is known that they can read. Rosa and her mother go when they can, hoping to avoid the patrollers searching for runaway slaves. When some of the student slaves get caught and beaten, school is over for a while. Then it starts again. Rosa can finally write her name to show others. Ransome's naturalistic paintings set a melodramatic tone to the story. End pages add to the emotional impact with woods and a mysterious figure. The tale is told in a sequence of double-page scenes, mainly at night with the characters interacting in lantern light. Tension is built early and successfully increased as the inherent danger is realized. A note adds information about the pit schools. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 1–4—Illuminating a little-known aspect of American history, Cline-Ransome dramatizes a tale of a "pit school," a hidden and disguised ditch where literate slaves skipped sleep to pass learning on to others at enormous risk. Told from the perspective of Rosa, a girl who makes the dangerous nighttime journey to the lessons with her mother, the story effectively conveys the urgent dedication of the characters to their surreptitious schooling and their belief in the power of literacy. Employing a muted palette of deep browns and blues, Ransome creates rich, full-spread watercolor paintings with radiant glints of moon and lantern light; the illustrations depicting the lessons share a tight focus and intimate perspective that places viewers into the cramped pit with the students. Young Rosa's voice, simple and straightforward, is mostly consistent and has touches of lyricism, and her somewhat-sheltered point of view allows Cline-Ransome to develop the serious threat of the plantation master and roaming patrollers searching for out-of-bound slaves without making the menace too horrifying. Solid text and soft, skillful illustrations combine for a poignant tribute to the power of education and the human spirit.—Robbin E. Friedman, Chappaqua Library, NY
A slave mother and her daughter learn to read in spite of the great danger inherent in their enterprise. Rosa's mother awakens her at night to walk to a "pit school," a hole dug in the ground and covered over where slaves gather to learn their ABC's. Their teacher is a fellow slave who had been taught to read. The patrollers make their journey perilous. Still, the men, women and children gather as often as they can. Cline-Ransome sensitively tells the story from Rosa's viewpoint, endowing her with a yearning and determination that overcome her mother's weariness and fear. The author learned of these schools while researching her book on Frederick Douglass, Words Set Me Free (2012). In this tale, she makes the point that learning was not just a dream of a few famous and accomplished men and women, but one that belonged to ordinary folk willing to risk their lives. Ransome's full-page watercolor paintings--in beautiful shades of blue for the night and yellow for the day--are a window, albeit somewhat gentle, into a slave's life for younger readers. A compelling story about those willing to risk "[a] lash for each letter." (author's note, further reading) (Picture book. 5-8)
In college, Lesa Cline-Ransome thought she would be an investigative journalist. After her first child was born, she fell in love with children's books and began writing them at her husband's urging. Her first collaboration with him was Satchel Paige. Since then she and James Ransome have paired up to create five acclaimed picture books.
James Ransome's illustrations have appeared in nearly fifty books for children, including The Creation, a Coretta Scott King Award Book; Uncle Jed's Barbershop, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book; This Is the Dream; and A Pride of African Tales, an NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. His traveling exhibit "Visual Stories" has been touring the United States since 2003. Lesa and James live in Rhinebeck, New York, with their four children.