Floyd Cooper and Two Picture Books that Chronicle the Road from Slavery to Freedom

BookendsLynn: Recently, a certain high-level public official seemed to be somewhat uncertain when talking about Frederick Douglass. In the interest of fairness, I should note that, sadly, there are many people who might be hard-pressed to talk about Douglass’s achievements. Lucky for us, helping our students be better-informed about this pivotal figure has been made easier by the arrival of a beautiful new picture book, Frederick Douglass: the Lion Who Wrote History (2017), by the late Walter Dean Myers.

Frederick Douglass: the Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean MyersMyers’ text focuses on an important quality Douglass possessed—making careful decisions—and explores it in both words and pictures. Myers structured the biography chronologically and hones in on elements of Douglass’ life that interest will young readers, such as teaching himself to read, fighting back against a brutal slave-breaker, and running away to freedom.

Myers’ text is inspiring, and so are Floyd Cooper’s beautiful illustrations. I’m a fan of Cooper’s work (Brick by Brick, In the Land of Milk and Honey) but this book in particular showcases a special, vibrant quality. Full-page, oil-on-board illustrations in muted tones depict Douglass in a variety of roles. From a moving interpretation of Douglass as a young child being taught to read by his owner’s wife, to a furious proud young man standing over the fallen “slave tamer,” to a portrait of Douglass, grey haired and dignified in his older years, each picture has tremendous power. This is a stand-out book that should be on every shelf (and maybe shelves belonging to adults as well).

Spy Called James by Anne RockwellCindy: Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are always gorgeous and moving, but his work on Frederick Douglass might be one of my very favorites. Lynn found another Cooper gem we’d missed in a recent foray into our public library.  A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent (2015), written by Anne Rockwell, pairs nicely with Douglass’ story.

The book follows the titular James, a slave who volunteers to serve in the Continental Army to help defeat the British. Recruited as a spy for Lafayette, James is tasked with pretending to be a runaway slave and asks to join Cornwallis’ troops. When Cornwallis uses James as a spy of his own, the young man finds himself in extra danger working as a double agent.

Despite his service, James returned to slavery; freedom was granted only to slaves who served as soldiers, not to spies. Ultimately, Lafayette intervened and James became a free man. In tribute, he took the name Lafayette as his own. Rockwell’s storytelling and Cooper’s emotion-filled paintings work wonderfully together to tell this story, which would make a fine addition to any elementary- or middle-school collection.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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