You are going to want this book.
This is a rare story, beautifully told, illustrated with power, and it has ties to things that children can touch and do.
What, you want more?
Heh, just kidding. Of course you do. How about you want a story that will help educate children about the time when slavery was legal in the United States, that does not flinch from the tragic inequities of that period, but which nonetheless is not unremittingly bleak? A story that celebrates a person whose skill and artistry transcended status and transcends time? Now you know. You want this book. I knew you would.
Dave was an enslaved African American man in South Carolina in the 1800's. He made pots. At a time when slaves were not ordinarily allowed to learn skills, or in fact to become literate, Dave was an extremely skilled and astonishingly prolific potter, making pots and jars of enormous size, thousands of them, signed and dated, and in many cases, inscribed with a poetic couplet.
When you fill this jar with pork or beef
Scot will be there to get a piece
David Drake "Dave the Potter" (American, born ca. 1800). Storage jar, 1858.
Made at the Lewis J. Miles Factory, Edgefield District, South Carolina. Stoneware with alkaline (ash) glaze
Exhibited in About Face: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the African-American image.
And they're beautiful.
As anyone who has ever thrown clay on a wheel can tell you, managing enough clay to make a 40-gallon jar requires power as well as technique. Dave's power surges through this book, in strong, slow, dense language that walks us through the process of making a pot...
Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat,
Dave's hands, buried
in the mounded mud,
pulled out the shape of a jar.
...and in Bryan Collier's warm, muscular watercolor and collage art. At ALA, Laban Hill told me that the text was finished back in 2004, but Bryan Collier wasn't available. I am glad they waited until he was - seldom has Collier's characteristic earthy palette more precisely suited the subject of a book. These paintings extend the story, giving us the landscape, materials and architecture of a South Carolina farm. We sense the heavy air, the wet, dark clay, the sounds and smells of the farmyard. Alert readers will find hidden messages in some of the collages, but what stands out in these pictures are Dave's hands and his eyes, and the strength of his body, reflected in the shape and size of his legendary jars and pots.
The text is beautiful for reading aloud: it has a stately meter that matches the rhythmic movements involved in making pottery. The actions of Dave's hands are described using familiar, solid verbs: pulling, pinching, squeezing, pounding. Rural imagery - a robin's puffed breast, a carnival wheel - reminds the reader of Dave's surroundings. The pithy lines themselves recall the short poems Dave inscribed on his pots.A lengthy author's note fleshes out what is known of Dave's life story and reproduces several of Dave's two-line poems. A photograph of some of Dave's surviving works cements the book's link to the present - I cannot state strongly enough how important a photo is for a child reading nonfiction. Without one, it just doesn't sell as "true". A decent bibliography of books and online sources encourages further exploration. Dave the Potter is an inspiring story, perfectly presented, sure to prompt classroom discussion and projects.