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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In the wake of freedom, many slaves in the United States had few options for work and education. The Quakers were one group of people who built special schools to help freed slaves educate themselves and their families. One such school was built in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Inspired by a visit to the school and family stories of survival and success in Tennessee, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard wrote this story.
Virgie is an adamant young girl who is insistent about one thing -- she wants an education. But in the days of Reconstruction, only boys went to school. This doesn't discourage Virgie, and she keeps nagging her brothers. But her brothers are sure she won't be able to make the seven-mile walk to school or that she'll cry over having to spend a whole week away from Mama. Finally, they argue that girls don't even need school. But Virgie thinks girls should learn to read and write too. All summer long, Virgie keeps asking her papa, and finally he says, "All free people need learning -- old folks, young folks...small girls, too."
Fall arrives, and Mama sends her children off to school with food for the whole week. They set out on their journey in a straight line, watching out for Virgie. Keeping up with the boys, keeping her hands out of poison ivy, and keeping above water when crossing the stream, Virgie holds her own. When the children reach the woods, the true test is at hand. The dark woods quiet the kids, but Virgie suggests they sing. Their voices in harmony ease their fears, and the woods are not so scary. Out of the woods and into town, they reach the Quaker school. Virgie meets the headmaster and checks out the schoolhouse, with its wooden desks and many books. Virgie is in awe, and young readers will know that she has just begun her true lesson in freedom.
Howard treats readers to a story rich with history and strong messages, including equal education opportunities for women and freedom for ex-slaves. Virgie is perfectly portrayed as an eager and headstrong girl, thanks to the watercolor illustrations of E. B. Lewis. From her stern look of determination with her hands on her hips as she convinces her brothers to take her to school to her sheer delight after they cross the woods and she enters town, Lewis wonderfully depicts Virgie's emotions. The beautiful watercolors also express the quiet determination of the boys as they lead Virgie to school. One particular picture shows the siblings in front of the dark-green woods, dense and full of the unknown. The figures of the children standing aligned and ready to traverse the wilderness to get an education perfectly illustrates the struggle for freedom and learning.
The final scene, in which Virgie is in the schoolhouse touching the books, will inspire and remind readers of the true meaning and wonder of education. Virgie's smile on the last page lights up the whole story, and young readers are sure to find themselves returning to her hope and determination time and time again.