White, Arisa and Laura Atkins. (2019). Biddy Mason Speaks Up. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. 112 pgs. Heyday, Berkeley, CA. Nonfiction. OUTSTANDING. Grades 5 – 8.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up , the second title in the Fighting for Justice series, is intriguing, direct, and impossible to put down. The book tells the little known story of Biddy Mason, a 19th century midwife and herbalist who traveled Westward as an enslaved person, gained her freedom through the support of an active network of community members, and became an integral part of Los Angeles’s first Black community. Biddy’s story unfolds in increments throughout the book, each two to three-page episode setting the stage for a chapter packed with historical narrative, definitions, timelines, and photographs, which lend context to the biographical story. The storyline is told in verse – short, simple sentences set against a pastel background accompanied by vibrant digital illustrations by Laura Freeman (Hidden Figures, Harper Collins, 2018). Each informational section addresses a theme introduced in the story such as plantation life, the economy of slavery, resistance, homesteading, and community building. Native plants used in healing and midwifery are featured throughout the text, adding a naturalist component that enriches the context. Educators will find merit in the layout as well as the content. Text boxes, captions, primary sources, definitions, and timelines support information literacy and research skills. The interplay of verse and informational text appeals to multiple literacies and the variety of content will entice readers with many interests. Fans of graphic novels and Guinness record books will be drawn in by the plethora of photographs, facts, and text boxes. Acknowledgments, source notes, bibliography, credits, and an index solidify the book as a nonfiction source. Liberties taken in the verse are explained in the informational sections as based on research. Uncomfortable concepts like enslavement, profiteering, and rape are respectfully approached with age-appropriate clarity, which will prompt meaningful discussion. Among many defining attributes, the Fighting for Justice series (Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, 2017) forges a meaningful connection between history and present day society. Readers are encouraged to apply the meaning of each chapter to their own experience through thoughtful prompts like, “What are the barriers that keep you from speaking up?” Back matter includes a section titled “Healing Your Community: From Biddy’s Day to Ours.” The series breaks the paradigm of traditional U.S. history texts for children, which propagate white privilege by omitting or editing historical fact. Details like using the term “enslaved person” in place of “slave” humanizes historical figures and pays respect to their descendants. The creators’ holistic approach to presenting history is inclusive, refreshing, and irresistible.
Sarah Jo Zaharako