Book Review: Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson

While at the library grabbing books for my daughter in the picture book section, I decided to do an experiment. I reached out randomly and grabbed two books for myself to read and review. So far, I’ve reviewed books I purposefully chose and then decided I wanted blog about. These two upcoming reviews, and probably more in the future, will stem from this fun game.

Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband, was published in 2016. It is inspired by the life of Reverend John Berry Meachum who was born a slave and worked his way to freedom. He spent his life fighting for the rights and education of African Americans.

The perspective of the story is from a young boy who is about to attend the reverend’s school with his sister. He has his mother’s words in his heart, “Mama says that sometimes courage is just an ordinary boy like me doing a small things, as small as picking up a pencil.”

At school, he not only learns his letters and numbers, but also how his valuable education comes at a high price. When a law is passed against the instruction of any children of color, they can no longer gather at the church to learn. The boy struggles to fill his days by trying to read signs and practices his letters at night.

The style of the writing verges on verse poetry, as though the narrator were sitting next to you, passing down his oral story to you. The voice flows; lilting, and soft.

The book layout is unique visually, outside of its gorgeous illustrations. There are a few choices phrases in a red font: such as the Reverend John’s words, ‘We make our own light here.” There are also small section headings which gives the layout a tiny chapter-book format. It makes each page different and keeps the eyes wondering around to catch all of the nuances of the page.

The illustrations are profound. The colors are mostly muted, with splashes of red that make the phrases mentioned above stand out. I couldn’t imagine the illustrations in any other style. Vibrant colors would be too distracting. The illustrations provide a great deal of depth to the words on the page. Everything from color choice to object placement was chosen with great care.

The words, the layout, and the illustrations bring the final few pages to a magnificent close. The reverend finds a genius way around the law, and the boy has grown to a man who realizes the bravery within himself.

I must add how delighted I was to see an additional page of sources for further researching. This is a great book for a classroom, and a must-have for the home.

(Pictures are taken from the illustrations of Steamboat School and are copyrighted 2016)

What are your thoughts?