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Vision of Beauty : The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennett

Vision of Beauty : The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennet is another fantastic book in the Candlewick Press Biographies series which started with Lasky's book A Voice of Her Own, The Story of Phyllis Wheatley, Slave Poet. While Sarah Breedlove Walker's early life was filled with hard work and the loss of her parents then her husband, her life story is fascinating to read about. I have heard of Madame C J Walker, but I never knew what made her famous. I can't find quite the perfect contemporary person to compare her to, but she seems like an early Mary Kay (the pink-cadillac, direct selling cosmetics company) in terms of her entrepreneurial success and Bill Gates in terms of personal wealth and philanthropic endeavors for the time.

Walker, a woman who could not go to school as a child because the Klu Klux Klan burned down her school, taught herself to read and write and, after seeing Margaret Washington, wife of Booker T Washington, speak at the St Louis World's Fair in 1904, was moved by her intelligent words and her immaculate appearance, proud posture and thick and healthy hair. Sarah's desire for these things, especially healthy hair since hard work outdoors and poor nutrition were causing her to lose hers, drove her to research the plants, trees, flowers and leaves of Africa and create products that gave women healthy hair. Walker went into women's homes to demonstrate her products and taught them how to become sales people and earn a living selling her products to others. Walker was also a trailblazer with her advertising. Instead of using a light-skinned, straight haired model like other makers of hair products for black women, she used herself and she used before and after pictures. She did not use the common advertising language that intimated black women's hair in its natural state was ugly and glorified long, straight hair. She promoted health. In 1908, two years after starting her company, she had almost 100 representatives. These women earned $5.00 a week at a time when most black women made $2.50 and white men made $17.00. She opened a college of Hair Culturists. She hired a woman factory foreman. When a movie theater wanted to charge black people twenty-five cents to get into a movie rather than the ten cents they charged whites, she built her own business complex with an elegant movie theater for the city's black population. She stood up at a meeting of the National Negro Business League after Booker T Washington overlooked her and chose only men to speak. She took the floor and talked about her achievements as well as the ways in which she used her fortune to help black people, something no other business man was talking about at that time. In 1911, her company was making $3,000 a week, the equivalent of $70,000 a week today. On her deathbed in 1919, one of her last acts was to donate $5,000 to the anti-lynching fund of the NAACP, the largest donation they had ever received at that time.

I didn't mean to go on like this here, but I really am enthralled by what I learned in Vision of Beauty : The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker and couldn't stop sharing. Again, Lasky has an author's note, this one coming at the start of the book. Speaking of her childhood in Indiana where she loved to sell lemonade at her lemonade stand, her mother commented on her jar or earnings saying, "Goodness, Kathryn, maybe you'll grow up to be the next Madame Walker!" While researching this book, Lasky worked with Madame Walker's great-great-grantdaughter who grew up a handful of blocks away from her.

Other books in this fantastic series of biographies about important Americans:

Source: Review Copy


I love the illustration showing the bedroom science lab. That is powerful stuff! Thank you for sharing this book. I had never heard of Madame Walker before.
Tanya said…
Agreed! Having worked as a children's bookseller for almost 20 years, I became bored and disappointed years ago by the narrow and homogeneous subject matter for juvenile biographies. I am SO excited by what Candlewick is doing! Look for more reviews from this series soon...

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