I did not know the origin of Memorial Day, and now that gap in my knowledge is filled by this beautiful book.
This quote from an article published on History.com underscores the significance of the event.
“It’s the fact that this occurred in Charleston at a cemetery site for the Union dead in a city where the Civil war had begun,” says Blight [a historian], “and that it was organized and done by African American former slaves is what gives it such poignancy.”
The opening spread provides the historical context for the story, briefly describing the Civil War and its end.
The narrative then begins with a close-up of a boy, holding a rock. A row of eight others lies in front of him. It is Day 9 of his papa being gone, doing what he calls “a man’s work.” The boy’s been wanting to go with his father, but his father tells him he can’t come because he needs to be in school.
The boy imagines what his father is doing out in the world during the war’s aftermath, including many of the daily humiliations inflicted on slaves and former slaves.
But no amount of arguing or curiosity gets him out of school, a “hard-earned right to learn” because “knowledge is its own freedom.”
Before the war, worry never let my insides ‘lone—
always scared that Mama or Papa would get sold away,
never to come back home. But today, Papa comes home
as the night covers the sky…
The lyricism of the boy’s description, and his anxious waiting to find out just what his father’s been up to, pulls the reader through the narrative.
Turns out, his father and many others are building a memorial to Union soldiers who died at a former racetrack turned into a Confederate prison that held thousands of Union soldiers in horrid conditions toward the end of the war. The boy’s mother and ladies from church had secretly given the prisoners food, but that wasn’t enough to keep many from dying in captivity.
Finally the boy is allowed to go with his father to put the finishing touches on the memorial, whitewashing the picket fence around the newly dug soldiers’ graves. The memorial is called the “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And this is where thousands march to scatter petals upon the graves, covering the ground with a fragrant carpet, an event that eventually transforms into Memorial Day.
In her author’s note, Henderson mentions that several places vie for distinction of holding the first Memorial Day, but her research suggests that the Decoration Day in Charleston, South Carolina, as described in this story, was the first. She includes a timeline in the back matter, showing the dates for other Decoration Days and includes the names of cities that claim to be the “birthplace of Memorial Day.” She also provides a more detailed description of the Roots of Decoration Day, original sources for the quotes included in the story, as well as a selected bibliography of books, newspapers and journal articles from 1865/1870, and videos produced by the History Channel and PBS that you can watch on Youtube.
Floyd Cooper’s sepia-toned, grainy illustrations add rich texture and heart to this moving story.
P.S. Don’t forget to look under the jacket
Pair this book with others illustrated by Floyd Cooper, including UnSpeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Max and the Tag-Along Moon written and illustrated by Cooper. How are the illustration styles of the books similar? How are they different? What do the illustrations add to the story?
Talk about what makes a book a work of historical fiction, which this book is. Why would an author choose to write historical fiction instead of nonfiction? Here’s a great post by the Nonfiction Ninjas that helps define the distinction.
Make poppy flowers for Memorial Day.
Title: A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
Author: Leah Henderson
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Abrams, 2021
Themes: Memorial Day, Civil War, remembrance
Ages: Elementary school
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.