The Oldest Student, written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and illustrated by Oge Mora
I am always amazed when I hear stories of people living beyond 100 years as they are often tenacious, with something incredible to offer the world and a determination to succeed in all they do. I love people with a zest for all that life has to offer and Mary Walker certainly had that. What is not to love about the story of a 116 year-old woman who learns to read!!!!! It is not only incredible but hugely inspirational and for children who think their mothers are ancient aged 40- years old (thank you kids!) therefore, 116 seems nearly impossible and the story staggering. This book cannot help but have something mystical about it for children, just because of the subject matter, but in addition to that adults can’t fail to be mesmerized by Mary’s story as well, for we rarely imagine living that long.
Written in simple, easy to access language, The Oldest Student, is a great book to introduce the subject of slavery to younger students. I love the fact that this book also tells the story of what happened after the abolition. The difficult position the freed slaves were put in, suddenly being homeless, penniless and in Mary’s case fatherless, yet told to leave the plantation and start a life on their own. Hubbard shows readers that life was incredibly hard and Mary faced many struggles that would have been faced by thousands of other freed slaves too. This book is certain to open up questions for small children as it did with mine, but I am all for that. Books that spark discussions in our house are the very best ones in my book!
One of the greatest discussions we had was over the sadness that lingers in this book. Mary, outlives all of her family and only learns to read when it seems almost too late. My boys felt that life had passed her by and kept saying, if only she had been able to read when she was younger. This sparked yet another discussion about the rights to education and the importance of literacy for all children. What you can and can’t do without learning to read. I was heartened by how strongly they felt about this story and it’s subject matter. It just show what a powerful book this is and how well written and illustrated it was.
On that note, the illustrations are delightful. They too are simple, like the language style, with defined outlines and block colours. A beautiful combination of paint and paper layered on thickly textured backgrounds added depth and interest. The colour palette is muted and yet the contrast between the blues and yellow is striking. Each spread has a warmth to it and despite the melancholy there is a tangible feeling of hope throughout.
Hubbard ends the story with writing as thoughtful and lyrical as poetry and lifts our spirits to fly like the birds Mary so adored. This book is truly moving, inspirational and teaches children to never give up on their dreams, no matter what the odds! My boys and I would highly recommend this book to anyone!