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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Africa Is My Home, written by Monica Edinger and illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $20.00 ages 10 and up

"It took seven weeks.
Seven weeks in a dark
and airless hold.
Seven weeks of heaving
Seven weeks of chains
and shackles.
Seven weeks of sobs
and cries.
Seven weeks of pain
and suffering."

I have read other books about the Middle Passage...all frightening and heartbreaking. I have never read about the children who were aboard the Amistad. To meet Margru was an honor, and her story is a mix of misery and hope. Monica Edinger explains why she felt she must tell this story in the author's note included in back matter:

"Children? There were children on the ship? It was the spring of 2000, and I was at an Amistad exhibit, of particular interest to me because the captives were from Sierra Leone, where I'd spent two years in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. Once I had learned about those children, I could not stop thinking about them. What must it have been like for them? I wondered. What is their story?"

Ms. Edinger did her research; that is evident from her writing and her compelling recount of Margru's story. It began as nonfiction. Not satisfied with making guesses about what might have happened, she made the decision to write it as a picture book, pairing the information she had garnered from many sources with a story about one of the children from the Amistad. In doing so, she is enables Margru to tell her own story.

Pawned for rice at age 9 by her father, and sold to slavers before he could repay the debt, Margru endures a long, arduous trek to the ocean and a waiting ship. Their stop in Cuba is short; soon, they board the Amistad. While at sea, they fear for their lives. The story of the passage is terrifying, and impossible to imagine. A slave mutiny, led by Cinque, gives power to the Africans and they demand that the ship set a course to take them home. The captain pretends to follow those orders. It wanders along the coastline and is eventually boarded by authorities from the United States.

Held in the New Haven jail, the children await trial for mutiny, as do the others on board. Their appearance, their clothing, their lack of English make them quite the spectacle for the townspeople. Margru's feelings are shared concerning everything, and especially her longing for home and family.

"I dreamed of the elders.
Telling us children stories of greedy Spider
and clever Rabbit.
Teaching up to be patient and brave always.
I dreamed of the elders.
I dreamed of home."

Once released from jail, the Amistad survivors face long waits for further trials; in the meantime, they learn about life in America and are introduced to a new faith. Margru loves the services, and finds solace in the new learning as she patiently awaits what will come next. Almost two years later, the children are freed to find their way in this new world. Treated with kindness and with derision, Margru recounts for us the rest of the story that leads to her training to be teacher, her return to her homeland, her marriage and a happy life.

The artwork is beautiful. Illustrations done in ink and watercolor allow readers to see the colors of Africa and Cuba, the deep darkness of the Amistad hold, the new and unfamiliar setting upon their arrival in the United States, the historical setting for the story and the many new experiences shared, including a very different return trip to Africa.

An author's note and selected sources are included, and welcome.

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