Etched in Clay: the Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng

etched-in-clay-andrea-chengThe Story (in 5 sentences or less):  Dave is a slave purchased by Harvey Drake in Augusta, Georgia in 1815.  Harvey takes him to Pottersville, South Carolina and not only teaches him pottery, but also how to read.  Over the span of years, Dave suffers greatly as his loved ones (including two wives) are sold away.  Dave begins carving words and poems into some of his pottery, a small act of sedition and outlet for his grief.

My Take:  I wondered if this book would be able to measure up to the quality of the Caldecott Honor book “Dave the Potter;” I believe that it does.  Written in short chapters of verse in 1st person, the poetry is never intrusive or self conscious, but rather breathes real life into the characters.  The poems are lean and spare, but sketch out the characters enough so that we grieve at the tragedies in Dave’s life.  I’d recommend this book to readers ages 11+ who are interested in knowing what being a slave feels like.  An appendix explains the life and times of Dave from an historical perspective.

One Interesting Note about the Author:  Andrea Cheng’s interest in Civil Right’s issues began at an early age when, growing up in Cincinnati, she remembers “sitting in the front yard with [her] friends, most of whom were African American, and hearing the sounds of the 1968 race riots just a few blocks away.”

The Capture by Kathryn Lasky

thecaptureThe Plot:  Soren is a barn owlet born in the forest of Tyoto.  Living with his family in the hollow of a fir tree, he has many things to look forward to.  He has just had his “first fur “ceremony, in which he eats his first meal with fur in it, and it will soon be time for his “first bones,” in which he will be expected to regurgitate pellets, just like a healthy adult owl would.   After that he will begin to learn how to fly!

But there are also problems in Soren’s life.  His older brother Kludd is a bully and at times seems to possess an even darker side that goes beyond that.  Soren worries about Kludd’s influence on their younger sister Eglantine.  There are rumors as well of a egg snatchings.  Someone or something has been raiding owl nests and stealing the eggs.  Such a things has never been heard of in the forests of Tyoto before.

 Soren’s life abruptly changes when he falls (or was he pushed by Kludd?) out of the nest one evening.  He is soon snatched up and carried aloft by a powerful owl who takes him to a stony place with deep, narrow canyons.  Hundreds of other young owls are there as well, all of them having been kidnapped from their homes.  He discovers out that this is “St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls.”   During the first full moon, the owlets are marched together outside.     Soren makes friends with an elf owl named Gylfie and together they discover that the Academy is trying to “moon blink” them, a process in which an owl basks in the moonlight and is made crazy.  The two owls discover other areas of St. Aegolius as well and realize that the Academy has a sinister purpose.  Soren and Gylfie must escape from this place and make it back to their homes to warn the other owls.

Personal Reaction:  I have been wanting to read some of The Guardians of Ga’hoole series for some time and I was not disappointed.  Lasky keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace while managing to create a convincing fantasy world.  I appreciated that Lasky presents a great deal of factual information about owls, including some of the not so appealing topics of regurgitation and excretion.  These bathroom subjects are approached in such a way that the young readers will understand that these are important part of the owl’s lives and not just put in the book for comedic material.

Themes:  desire for power, orphans, bullies, kidnaping, creating new family,  enslavement,  searching for home.

The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango

  It is the 17th century in Cartagena of the Indies (modern day Columbia), a time and place in which the slave trade is alive and well.  Thirteen year old Calepino, orphaned by his mother who died on a slave ship, finds himself in comfortable circumstances.  The  noblewoman Dona Isabel has taken him in and shown an interest in his education.  Through his studies, Calepino shows an affinity for languages and soon is fluent in 11 of them, both African and European.   This talent serves him well when, on his 13 birthday, he is taken in by the local Catholic priest Father Pedro to work in the monastery.

Father Pedro introduces Calepino to a cruel world that he only narrowly escaped.  They board crowded and stinking slave ships to care for the sick and dying.  They visit slave holding cells to administer last rights.  Through their work together, Calepino meets Mara and Tomi, a mother and son slave who have recently been brought over and are now working for a cruel master.  Mara and Tomi remind Calepino of his own past and he feels obligated to help them.

Calepino creates a plan to free Mara and Tomi and allow them to escape to the palenques, a hidden settlement of escaped slaves.  To do this he must reach out to his friend Dr. Lopez who treats patients at the local leper colony.  But Dr. Lopez has his own problems when he is hauled before the inquisition courts on charges of practicing his Jewish religion.  Through all of this, Calepino will learn how dangerous it is to help others in a time of great cruelty.

This is a wonderful juvenile historical fiction novel for anyone interested in the slave trade, 17th century South America, or early Columbia history.  Ages 9-11.

“Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave” by Hill and Collier

I finally got around to taking a look at some of the Caldecott finalists for this year.  I truly enjoyed the lively Interrupting Chicken, but Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave has really captured me. Laban Carrick Hill’s spare prose captures the mysterious character of Dave, his art, and his circumstances.  A slave in South Carolina in the 19th century, Dave spends his time making clay containers and inscribing small poems on the side of some of them.  Bryan Collier’s award winning art combines painting and collage to give life to Dave’s world.  As we read along, we discover that pottery is his balm and escape from his cruel circumstances.  Perhaps Dave best expresses his pain and hope in this simple poem he etches into the side of a jar in 1857: “I wonder where is all  my relation/  friendship to all—and, every nation.”  This book gave me goosebumps.