Nine-year-old Booker T. Washington was no longer a slave, but he didn’t feel free. Instead of learning the tools of freedom, Booker spent his hours toiling in a salt mine so he and his family could survive.
With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade tells the inspiring story of how Washington managed to found what is now known as Tuskegee University. We learn that Booker not only taught himself to read, but went on to walk and hitch rides 500 miles away to Virginia, where, at the age of 16, he could finally attend school. After graduating, he found a job teaching in the small town of Tuskegee, Alabama.
He encountered lots of eager students ready to learn — but no school. He procured an old shed, but the roof was so leaky that when it rained, “students took turns holding an umbrella over Booker so he could keep teaching.”
As more students came, the shack became more and more crowded. Booker knew they needed a real school, and it seemed obvious that the only way to get it was to build it themselves.
After borrowing money to buy an abandoned farm, Booker went to work clearing land. But where could he get the bricks necessary for the walls? Again, Booker relied on his own strength and knowledge. He studied how to mold and bake bricks and learned how to lay them. He and his students then took on the back-breaking work of digging for the clay they needed to make bricks. Nicole Tadgell’s lively pencil and watercolor illustrations help readers realize how grueling the task would have been. She shows the young people chopping down huge trees, digging muddy pits, holding red clay in blistered hands, and then lining up their many bricks.
They made 25,000 of them — only to have the kiln Booker had built explode and ruin them. Booker built another, and the same thing happened.
But Booker would not stop. He took his only precious possession, a gold watch, and sold it to pay for a kiln. This one did the job, and they built the walls and installed the front door and nailed on a waterproof roof.
More students kept coming, though, so they continued building– a dining hall, a chapel, a dorm where students could live. Those students went on to become the next generation’s teachers and leaders. I think most of us would agree with Washington’s observation, which closes the story: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
The author complements her well-paced narrative with an afterword containing more information on Washington, as well as a bibliography and source notes for the quotes she used.
While others have written picture books on Washington, I recommend using this one for ages 6 to 9, as Slade’s focus on the challenge of building a school creates enough drama to keep children interested and engaged.
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