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Patrice Sherman

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Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation
by Patrice Sherman  Floyd Cooper, illustrator 

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Publisher:  Eerdmans ISBN-10:  0802853196


Copyright:  2010 ISBN-13:  9780802853196

Patrice Sherman

Ben, a young slave, teaches himself to read during the Civil War era. Based on a true story.

     In the years before the Civil War, African-American slaves in the South were forbidden by law from learning how to read.  Twelve-year old Ben is lucky:  his master has just apprenticed him to Mr. Bleeker, a tailor in the city of Charleston. There, Ben discovers all kinds of secret ways to learn how to read.  He studies the labels on the tailor’s boxes of thread and buttons.  While he runs errands, he memorizes street signs and the words he sees on the sides of wagons and in shop windows.    

   After war breaks out between the North and the South, Mr. Bleeker and his wife are forced to flee the city.  They can’t take Ben with them, so his master sends him to a slave prison to await sale.  

  One night, a group prisoners pool all their bits of tobacco together and bribe a guard for the latest copy of the Mercury in which the Emancipation Proclamation has just been published.
    “Read.”  They jostled Ben awake.  “We know you can read.” 
    By the light of a torch, Ben reads the Proclamation to his fellow prisoners. When he finishes, they break into cheers.  Ben realized they are not just cheering for Abraham Lincoln's words. They are cheering for him.  For the first time in their lives, they have heard a Black man read.

“Excuse me, sir.” Ben tugged on the sleeve of a passing gentleman. “Does that say Broad Street?” He pointed to the wooden sign on the corner.
“Yes.” The man pulled away impatiently.
“And that other one, please. That’s King Street, right?” Ben studied the signs, trying to remember the letters. Broad. B-R-O-A-D, King, K-I...
“Boy?” The man had turned to stare at him. “Shouldn’t you be getting along?”
“Yes sir.” Ben threw his carrying sack over his shoulder and hurried away.Don’t let them know you can read. That’s what his father had told him. Slaves weren’t allowed to read.

Professional Reviews

School Library Journal
Based on the life of Benjamin Holmes, a slave who taught himself to read at a young age, this picture book is an inspiring account of overcoming oppression. Sherman's fictionalized telling is stirring, especially when Holmes revels in the discovery of new words; readers are moved to cheer on his clandestine efforts to learn. When Union troops approach Charleston, the tailor to whom Holmes is apprenticed leaves town, and the boy is imprisoned indefinitely with other slaves, and he is credited with reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his fellow inmates. The story culminates in a forceful scene when the inmates implore Ben to read the newspaper that contains Lincoln's history-making document. "'Louder,' someone called out. 'Stand up.'" Sherman's text has a stately simplicity. Cooper's paintings glow with a hopeful, golden warmth, and the best of them feature Benjamin and the other imprisoned slaves bearing witness and then celebrating as his voice rings out. This is a powerful tale of a bright ray of light in a very dark period in America.-Alyson Low, Fayetteville Public Library,

Publisher's Weekly
Driven by Cooper's (The Blacker the Berry) textural, earth-toned oil paintings, this uplifting story spotlights the early life of Benjamin C. Holmes, born a slave in the 1840s. As a tailor's apprentice in Charleston, S.C., the boy discovers "all kinds of secret ways to learn how to read," deciphering words on street signs and in newspapers. In a memorable scene, Ben, on a rare visit home, reads the Bible to his illiterate mother, and she promises him a gold dollar when he learns to write. Sherman's (The Sun's Daughter) storytelling doesn't eschew the darker aspects of Ben's story: his father was sold off after teaching Ben the alphabet; he never sees his mother again after receiving the gold coin; and he's sent to a slave prison when the tailor flees as the Union Army approaches. Rumors that Lincoln has freed all slaves are confirmed when Ben reads a newspaper article announcing the Emancipation Proclamation to fellow slaves in the prison. Though Sherman's narrative ends there, a concluding note touches on Holmes's later life as a singer and teacher. Ages 8-12.

Don't let them know you can read was the mantra of young Ben, a black slave in Charleston during the Civil War. Even though literacy was illegal for African Americans at the time, Ben learned the alphabet from his father and covertly practiced writing and word recognition. One night, after being imprisoned, he read aloud to his fellow inmates from a smuggled newspaper and discovered that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This fictionalized account is drawn from the early life of Benjamin C. Holmes, who would go on to become a member of the famous Jubilee Singers and a teacher. The inspirational story is well-executed oil-on-board illustrations in sepia tones and rays of gold light, and the close-up depictions of Ben's face are realistically and nobly rendered. With moving language, Sherman clearly shows the ways that the young Ben both strengthened and hid his literacy skills, and how he put them to use as he dreamed of a better future.-- Andrew Medlar

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