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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Dear Mr. Rosenwald

by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

It's 1921, and Ovella, the daughter of African-American sharecroppers, goes to school in an old church, a cold, leaky, rickety structure divided into two classrooms by a sheet. When news comes that Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, is responding to the call of the Tuskegee Institute's Booker T. Washington by donating money for school construction, the hopeful community digs deep to meet the requirements, finding land and raising money for matching funds. Soon the building goes up, a playground is constructed, and the proud community celebrates its new school. The kids' first assignment? A thank-you letter to Mr. Rosenwald.

Weatherford tells Ovella's story in fourteen free-verse poems narrated by Ovella herself, compactly conveying a life where hard work is an everyday reality and solvency is a dream always deferred. The book's second poem, "Sharecropping," imparts two pieces of news: that despite a good crop, the family is more in debt to their landlord than ever, and that there's a new baby on the way. Those strictures set up the key narrative question: "How on earth will poor people/ find money to give away?" What's important here, though, is not so much the how -- selling crops from donated land, holding box parties, earmarking collection money at church -- as the why -- to find a concrete way to give these kids a better future. The church's donation of school land, "Land that would have been used for graves," goes instead for the future: "Now, a seed is sowed instead." Ovella's family has even more hope for this seed than the ones they grow, with Mama determinedly saying "This child will have a better chance" when baby sister Leona is born. Christie's sweeps of color convey the ramshackle nature of the current structures with their blotchy and uneven textures, while the people are vivid, intensely hued figures, grouped in strong configurations against the earthtoned landscape. The strong angles of building and roads that anchor many spreads are always punctuated and invigorated by large or small human groupings -- by the people who created those very structures. The final spread celebrates both the new school, with its clean, solid walls, and the bell-ringing teacher who stands tall before it, summoning her students in and inspiring Ovella to follow in her footsteps.

Most contemporary American kids take schooling for granted, if they're not actively hostile. Between Christie's artistic vigor and Weatherford's quiet- spoken sincerity, this avoids becoming a preachy lesson about the importance of schooling, but the point is effectively made: "My parents are counting on me/ to learn all I can," Ovella says simply, understanding that it's now her turn to carry this responsibility. Nor is this an overall treatment of the often-forgotten, flawed but effective and widespread enterprise of the Rosenwald schools (details about Booker T. Washington's influence and Rosenwald's funding are simply and effectively related without bogging the story down, and an author's note gives more information about the schools), and for all the respect paid in the title and the book to Julius Rosenwald, this isn't a tale about the wonders of philanthropy. Rosenwald's money is itself a seed, the providing of an opportunity for a community that pulls together to make the most out of this start, even in the midst of hard times. Even more than an eye-opening look at history, this is a compelling and emotional tale of a community laboring toward a better future for the next generation, with a kid's-eye understanding that brings that large and abstract theme into accessible reach.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

 

Big Picture Image

Cover image by R. Gregory Christie from Dear Mr. Rosenwald ©2006. Used by permission of Scholastic Press.


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This page was last updated on October 1, 2006.

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