Hubbard, Rita Lorraine. The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 978-1-5247-6828-7. $17.99. 40 p. Grades K-3.
As a child born into slavery, Mary Walker admires the freedom of birds that pass over the plantation. She spends her days toiling in the fields picking cotton, which leaves no time for schooling of any kind. After the Emancipation Proclamation sets her free at the age of 15, Mary works as a nanny and a maid to keep her family afloat. One day, she meets a group of evangelists who gifts her a Bible. Mary vows that she will read it one day, but today is not that day. Work consumes the next six decades of her life until she moves to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Having outlived her entire family, her life changes when she moves to a retirement home, and, at 116 years old, takes a reading class. Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora uses paper, including sheet music and pages from books, to create beautiful collages in shades of brown, green, yellow, and blue. Readers should take care to notice how Mary’s dress changes throughout the book, especially once she learns to read.
THOUGHTS: Even though The Oldest Student is geared towards K-3 students, ALL students can take away the very important message of the book: No one is ever too old to learn. This inspiring book is a gentle way to ease into difficult conversations about slavery, race, and education in our society. With the current emphasis on growth mindset in the classroom, this is the perfect book to show that learning and growing continue long after school is over.
Picture Book Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD
921 WAL Biography
Mary Walker’s inspirational story, beautifully illustrated in this picture book biography, proves you’re never too old to learn. Born a slave in 1848, Mary never gave up on her lifelong dream of learning how to read. And, at age 116, she finally accomplished it. This book follows Mary from her childhood spent picking cotton on an Alabama plantation, through her emancipation at age 15, to her life spent working low-paying jobs and raising her three children. Mary always dreamed of learning to read, but there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. Finally, at age 114, after outliving her entire family, Mary attended her first reading class. From memorizing the alphabet and each letter’s sound to copying her name over and over again, Mary spent more than a year studying and practicing. Her dedication paid off when, at age 116, she finally learned to read. Friends and neighbors gathered around to hear her read aloud from her cherished family Bible. Oge Mora’s mixed media illustrations, composed of acrylic paint, china marker, colored pencil, patterned paper, and book clippings, bring Mary’s memorable story to life. Beautiful full-page illustrations feature a palette of primarily blues and greens and yellows. Endpapers include black and white photographs of Mary Walker celebrating some of her milestones.
THOUGHTS: Teachers will want to share this inspirational story with older students during morning meetings. It will also work well with lessons or units focusing on perseverance or the importance of working towards a goal.
Picture Book Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD
As a young slave girl, Mary Walker would look up at the birds while working in the fields and imagine what it would be like to be free as a bird. When she was 15 the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and Mary’s dream of being free was realized. However, that didn’t mean the end of hard work and a lack of education. As a teen Mary was given a Bible, and she vowed to one day learn to read the words written in that book. But marriage, children, and work took up Mary’s time, and she never learned to read. Until…at 114 years old and alone (her three boys and husband since passed), Mary heard about a class in her retirement building that taught folks to read. Mary joined the class and never looked back. She was proclaimed the nation’s oldest student by the US Department of Education when she was 117! Mary lived to 121! The endpapers include photos of Mary later in her life.
THOUGHTS: This amazing story is one of resilience and determination. It is beautifully illustrated by Oge Mora. This must purchase will make a great read aloud for any age.
306 Social Sciences Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy