Sunday, June 12, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song


Frederick Douglass wrote, "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart." This collection highlights 13 spirituals along with illustrations by Michele Wood and information about the Biblical and historical significance of each song. The cover shows Harriet Tubman flying over workers in a cotton field while a white dove joins her in the blue sky. The foreword explains that Tubman had a dream in which she was flying over the landscape "like a bird." And there is also the reference to Psalm 124:7 "We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare," so it is no surprise that the repeated symbol of the white dove appears in every illustration.

Wood's artwork has the cozy feel of a patchwork quilt while still conveying the sense of each song. The dove might appear in the sky among the clouds, as in the illustration for "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." At other times it seems to be lifting off from the outstretched hand of one of the characters, like the figures in "Jacob's Ladder." As the figures follow the advice in "Steal Away," the dove perches on the fence-post next to the open gate. Particular figures have the dove hovering over the shoulder - Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Peter. There are also beautiful jewel tones worked into the night sky, the water of a river, or the dappled greenery of a forest that add incredible richness to the images. The facial expressions convey emotion in each scene - the grief of the mother whose child has been sold, the fear of the couple fleeing during a thunderstorm, the solemn resolve Tubman's face all add layers of meaning.

This would be an excellent resource to use when teaching the Civil War period. The class could research the songs, discuss the themes in the lyrics, and analyze the symbols in the illustrations. The historical figures mentioned in the text are a great lead-in to the time period. And a cross-curricular project with the social studies, language arts, music and art teachers would be awesome. One of my favorite parts of the book is the double-page spread illustration for "Get on Board - the Gospel Train." The only part of the train that is mechanical are the wheels, but everything else is the people who are on board. Harriet Tubman's figure is at the front of the train (as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, her position at the front makes sense), and the skirt of her dress forms the cow-pusher. Another thing I enjoyed was the inclusion of information about the Jubilee Singers, and the vintage photo of the group.

A good read for history buffs (whether American history or musical history), teachers and students covering the Civil War, and fans of Michele Wood's intricate illustrative style.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

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