Whelan, G. (2009). The Listeners. Chelsea, MI: Sleeping Bear Press.
Appetizer: This historical picturebook shows the experience of slavery through the eyes of children who, after a long day of labor in the cotton fields, were tasked with listening to the plantation owners.
As you can probably imagine with a picturebook about slavery, this book is very emotionally stirring. The page where the children overhear that the master is considering selling William, the narrator (Ella May's) father was what got me. But others may be struck by how the blacks and whites were separated in the church on Sunday, but they'd still sing "Amazing Grace" together. Or how slaves were cheaper to buy and keep than horses. And on. And on.
I liked how many sensory details Whelan included to capture the time and the space of the story. I also loved how accessible she made this story by showing a group of children's role in resisting and dealing with slavery. (With such an important topic, it can be very difficult to find that balance between having children refuse to consider that young people like them experienced this type of suffering and traumatizing them)
Benny's illustrations are vibrant. I was vaguely reminded of the paintings done by Kadir Nelson in Henry's Freedom Box and some of his other works. I think the reason their art seems similar is because of the amount of space the characters are given in the paintings. They often dominate the space of each page.
"We come home tired. We come home hungry, but Bobby, Sue and me, Ella May, got more work to do after supper. We got to listen."
"We children listen and carry back the news to our folks."
"Listening is a job for us children. We make ourselves small as cotton seeds and quiet as shadows.
The breezes puff the curtains out the open windows. Sand flies bite use and mosquitoes stick pins in us but we don't slap at them. We're here to listen."
To Go with the Meal:
The Listeners would be a good read aloud for second and third graders to help share the emotional realities of slavery--the way even children were expected to work, the fact that families were often torn apart, the fact that slaves legally could not be educated.
The strength of this book is that it shows young slaves in the powerful role of providing information to their family members. So, even though the slaves are still in the position of being the victim, they're still trying their best to maintain the best life possible under the harsh situation.
It'd be wise for a teacher to situate The Listeners within the context of history, since there is a mention of Abraham Lincoln and the approaching Civil War. In fact, as a teacher shares the events of the civil war, children can imagine a second chapter to The Listeners, researching how the children and their families may have made it to freedom.
Tasty Rating: !!!!