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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Etched in Clay, written and illustrated by Andrea Cheng. Lee & Low Books, Inc. 2013. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"Someday the world will read
my word etched in clay
on the side of this jar
and know about the shackles
around our legs
and the whips
upon our backs.
I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word
can never be erased."

Whenever I read a novel in verse, I am reminded of how incredibly talented these writers are to tell their stories in the fewest, most perfect words possible. They awe readers with the beauty of the language used to give us characters, settings and situations that shock, inspire and teach us so much more than we can know ourselves.

I know nothing of the pain of slavery and the unjust conditions that so many people of the world continue to experience today. But, I have experienced just some small bit of it through the words of Andrea Cheng in this book, which is written in Dave's (Enslaved Potter and Poet) voice, and in the voices of others who are a part of his life. As I read it and then read it again, I was reminded that their voices shine through each of the experiences because this remarkable author has done her research, and used what she learned to create a story that would shape my thinking about the bravery of this very special man.

Dave had an innate need to communicate with the greater world. His only outlet was to make inscriptions on the pots that he made. To be punished for being literate is totally unimaginable to me; I am quite sure I would not have had Dave's courage in the face of the beatings and the humiliation he was forced to endure. No matter what was done to him, Dave persevered and continued to leave his mark.

There are few records to confirm Dave's life. We do know he was born in 1801, that he was only 17 when he was bought by Harvey Drake whose family owned a stoneware company. Dave became one of their most accomplished potters. It was the beginning of a life filled with great adversity:

"The sky is dark,
no stars, no moon.
How can I know
when my mother passed?
What about Eliza,
who smiled at me
as she walked by.
What about Lydia
and John and George?
Are those boys still reading
and writing?
"Please," George would beg.
"Teach us how to spell
another word."
Where are they now?
I go back to the turning house,
 and by the light of a candle,
I write across my newest jar:
I wonder where is all my relation
friendship to all - and, every nation."
As Ms. Cheng imagines Dave's life, and uses stunning woodcuts to illustrate its many events, we are blessed to learn his story, to begin to understand his need to have a say and to admire the quiet rebellion that was his alone as an artist and a man. Bravo!

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