Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper is a vital addition to both narrative non-fiction and biographies. A posthumous publication for Myers, a lion of children's literature who will be missed, it feels right to begin this review with Floyd Cooper's dedication:
For those who are, and aspire to be, self-made.
At the age of nine, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was sent to live with slave owner Hugh Auld and his family. Observant of mistress of the house, Sophia Auld, and the reading lessons she gave children, Frederick's interest and eagerness were rewarded. When Hugh Auld learned that Sophia was teaching a slave to read, he put an end to Frederick's lessons. That did not stop Frederick from seeking out the written word and teaching himself. Young Frederick watched the Auld children grow and pursue dreams of their own, realizing that the life of a slave meant not having dreams. While Frederick became a "reader and a young man who used words well. Sometimes he used them unwisely," and he was sent to a man known for breaking slaves. Frederick refused to be beaten into submission and went on to work in a shipyard, sending all his earnings to his master. There he was exposed to free black men and a layer of understanding and aspiration was again added to his character. When he fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman, Frederick planned his escape to the North, using his command of words and intelligence to pass as a freed sailor.
Once in the North and reunited with Anna, he changed his name to avoid slave catchers, becoming Frederick Douglass. He spoke often for the abolitionist society, the rare man who could actually talk about what it meant to be a slave. Douglass had an "eloquence that stirred the souls of his audience," making them wonder if "all the black people working in the fields or on Southern plantations had the potential of this tall and handsome young man." In 1845 at the young age of twenty-seven, his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published.
Douglass went on to give speeches that inspired the male delegates of the convention for women's rights at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 to "pass an important amendment demanding that women be allowed to vote." He advised President Lincoln enlist black soldiers as equals in the Union Army, with more than one hundred and eighty thousand joining. He served the United States government in Washington D.C. and as a consul-general in Haiti. Myers ends his book with these timely words,
The careful and wise decisions made by Frederick Douglass - to learn to read, to escape from slavery to speak out for justice for all Americans, and to aid the Union Army - had helped to write American history . . . His voice, born in the soft tones of the slave population, truly became a lion's roar.
A timeline of Frederick Douglass's Life, a bibliography and the full text of the document officially freeing Douglass are included as backmatter.
Source: Review Copy