Steamboat School

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Steamboat School
by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband
Disney Hyperion, 2016

From the opening lines, the readers are invited into a story of depth.

“I always thought being brave
was for grown-up heroes doing big, daring deeds.
But Mama says that sometimes courage
is just an ordinary boy like me
doing a small thing, as small as picking up a pencil.”

Said by James, a young African American boy, about to go to school in 1847, the lines set a tone for the story.  Schooled by Reverend John, a former slave, in the church basement, the children heard stories of slaves and how they turned themselves around when they were freed.  But the white people did not like black people being educated and in 1847 passed a new Missouri law banning black people from reading and writing.  But Reverend John declared he’d find a way to teach the children.  Once day Reverend John invited the children on a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River, and so Freedom School was taught not in the State of Missouri, but on the Mississippi River, that belonged to the whole country.

The story is inspired by the life of Reverend John Berry Meachum, 1789-1854, who had bought his own freedom by working in saltpeter mines.

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