Reading Challenge Category: A Children’s Book
Winter’s story begins with a peg-leg sailor who aids slaves on their escape on the Underground Railroad. While working for plantation owners, Peg Leg Joe teaches the slaves a song about the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). A couple, their son, and two others make their escape by following the song’s directions. Rich paintings interpret the strong story in a clean, primitive style enhanced by bold colors. The rhythmic compositions have an energetic presence that’s compelling. A fine rendering of history in picture book format.
Jeanette Winter’s story is based on the folklore that a person traveled around to teach slaves at different plantations in Alabama the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” in order to give them directions to freedom. The song, a version of which can be heard here on YouTube, is catchy. The directions start off vague, but as the song goes on they become more and more specific. The drinking gourd, as the synopsis states, is the Big Dipper, and it points towards the north star, which of course leads the slaves north to freedom. While the authenticity of the folklore’s claims are up for debate (there’s a great write-up about it at this site), that doesn’t take away from the fact that this story is beautiful and important.
Winter’s story is beautifully illustrated, which is sure to keep the attention of any children you’re reading it to. The story is fun and educational at the same time, even if the exact details aren’t 100% accurate. Whether the folklore about “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is truth or fable, songs were how many slaves communicated, especially when they were trying to escape for freedom. So while this song might not have actually existed then, others did, and the outcome was the same. Helping enslaved people reach safety and freedom.
“This is great…if you’re an elementary school teacher!” you might be thinking, and I can understand why you would think that. It’s a children’s book after all, written and illustrated to capture the attention of children in lower grades, before they become the teenagers that I teach. But that’s only if you only use the book at face value, and as teachers, we’re tasked with thinking outside of the box to teach our students. Follow the Drinking Gourd is a great tool to have in your arsenal when you’re teaching about slavery and the Civil War, whether you’re teaching elementary students, middle school students, or even high school students. Obviously it won’t be your primary teaching resource for older students, but it’s an absolutely fantastic supplementary source. I’ve long been a proponent of including illustrated books in curriculum for older students, whether it’s through children’s books or graphic novels. It helps your students who are visual learners with the images, and this book in particular has the unique opportunity to appeal to your musical learners as well. Read the book to them, or pass it around for them to see, and then throw on one of the versions of the song on YouTube.
There are a multitude of reasons a book such as this should be in your classroom repertoire. Other than the reasons I’ve already stated, it also helps to make slavery feel less like dates in a textbook, and connects a deeper story to it. Students go from thinking of the underground railroad as something akin to “the slaves left and got north to freedom,” and shows just how dangerous it was for them. It shows how brave these men, women, and children were for taking this journey, and just how much it could cost them. That was how important freedom was for them; they were willing to take these chances. That’s something students need to know about. Winter’s book provides that.
Favorite part of the book:
The illustrations, hands down. I can’t even fully explain why I love the illustrations so much, but they fit so perfectly with the words that it strikes emotion as I read it.
Least favorite part of the book:
Honestly, I have a hard time finding something I don’t like about this book, so this section’s going to be a little superficial. I wish I could press a button on the book to have the song sung out loud, but I can settle for YouTube.
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