Going back 15 years, today, because I just read a beautiful autobiographical story told by an amazing writer you may have heard of: Jacqueline Woodson. And yes, it won a Newbery Honor.
The cover’s die cut diamond with patchwork border, reveals a child with a lantern. And that lantern illuminates a quilt, a “show way” used by slaves to find their way to freedom.
The first generation begins with a seven-year-old girl (Soonie’s great-grandmother) being sold to another plantation, her family shown isolated on the left hand page of the spread while the child, tied to other children, carries with her a scrap of muslin, two needles from the big house, and thread dyed bright red from the chokecherry tree.
These small items connect her to the family she has lost and is the thread that weaves through the story. Soonie’s great-grandma learns to quilt (patterned with the maps to freedom) and hears stories of freedom from Big Mama, an old slave who looks after all of the displaced children in their new home.
Soonie’s great-grandma grows up, jumps broom and has herself a baby girl, named Mathis May—who learns to sew. When she is seven, Mathis May, too, is sold away, taking with her “a star from her mama’s blanket” and “a little piece of the road.” She sews so well, she makes clothes for people “in the big house and slaves, too.”
Mathis May grows tall and straight-boned and jumps broom with a slave, who’s killed running north during the Civil War, months before his baby girl is born free in 1863. And despite that baby girl’s name being lost to history, her thread remained. She became “Soonie’s mama,” and Soonie becomes the child who cuts and sews, a child who “could find some beauty in so many things.”
She and her mama take in laundry and make quilts to earn a living. And then Woodson transitions from knowledge passed through stories and quilts to words on the page.
The fifth-generation girl child, Georgiana, grows up “tall and straight-boned and free” to become a teacher. Then the teacher has twins, one who pursues poetry (Ann), and the other (Caroline) who “stitches songs into art that people hang on their walls. And then Ann gives birth to Jacqueline who then has a daughter, Toshi.
Woodson uses repetition effectively as she tells the story of eight generations, each:
Had herself a baby girl….
Loved that baby up so.
Yes, she loved that baby up.
She uses the age of 7 to mark time and show any cultural changes for each girl before they grow “tall and straight-boned.”
When we reach the era of Woodson’s mother, Ann, we see her as a seven-year old marching for Civil Rights.
Then Jacqueline, at age seven, reads like one of her aunts and writes like her mother, but finds her hands returning to the sewing of previous generations.
And when the words were slow in coming,
I sewed stars and moons and roads
into quilts and curtains and clothes because Mama said,
All the stuff that happened before you were born
is your own kind of Show Way.
There’s a road, girl, my mama said. There’s a road.
Woodson’s lyrical words are mesmerizing. The reader is pulled through the story by the poet’s thread.
And while it is a story that depicts slavery in the horrible way it repeatedly split families, it is not really about slavery. It’s about finding a way to freedom, the strength of women, the importance and joy of “loving that baby up,” the power of stories, and the thread that ties generations together, if we work to hold on to it—as Woodson does, whispering this story to her daughter.
Hudson Talbott’s illustrations are luminous, using mixed media to great effect. A piece of muslin, needle and thread on a watercolor background, a campfire scene illuminated solely by the firelight, each spread a different kind of patchwork, depending on the era and its challenges. And the light from the candle, illuminating the way to freedom. There are other masterful spreads, but you will have to discover them on your own. But I have to show you the final one where a ribbon of quilt connects the generations of the story, not ending with finality at Toshi but with a patchwork quilt of arrows showing the way forward—a road.
Pair with The Kindness Quilt by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace, and make your own paper kindness quilt.
Learn how to quilt, using Sewing School’s Quilts: 15 Projects Kids Love to Make by Amie Petronis.
Talk to older relatives and ask them to tell family stories. See if you can find common threads that tie the generations together.
Title: Show Way
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrator: Hudson Talbott
Publisher: G.P. Putnam, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2005
Themes: slavery, family stories, quilts, sewing
Ages: K-5th grade
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s blog.