By Margaret H. Mason; illustrated by Floyd Cooper
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011; ages 6-9)
“Look at these hands, Joseph.
Did you know these hands used to make the ivories sing like a sparrow in springtime?
Well, I can still show a young fellow
how to play “Heart and Soul”—yes I can.”
Heart and soul is just what the picture book These Hands has—in spades. Author Margaret H. Mason shows us a grandfather not just sharing memories of days gone by, but also skills he can teach now to his young grandson.
His experienced hands transform a deck of cards into a waterfall shuffle, relate the intricacies of tying shoelaces, and help the young boy learn to hit a line drive. All while relating tales of what his own hands once did, bits and pieces of personal history.
Then this African-American grandfather calmly shares a piece of painful history—a task his dark skinned hands was once denied.
“Did you know these hands
were not allowed to touch
the bread dough
in the Wonder Bread factory?
These hands were only allowed
To sweep the floors
And work the line
And load the trucks.”
The author gives us details in the back—her story was sparked by a reminiscence shared by her friend Joe Barnett in Detroit. It was common in the 1950’s and early 60’s to restrict the duties of African American workers in bakeries with claims that white people would not want to eat bread baked by black hands. An example like this makes racism concrete for young kids.
“…these hands joined with other hands. And we wrote our petitions, and we carried our signs, and we raised our voices together.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally made the practice illegal.
I’m reminded of a quote from Ken Dychtwald in Age Power where he discussed lifelong aging— “…all the choices we make regarding how we care for ourselves, how we manage our lives, and even how we think about our futures, shape who we ultimately become.”
What amazing lessons and images for a young impressionable grandson. The lovely soft and chalky illustrations by Floyd Cooper somehow also convey power—the power of the people.
The author has tapped into what Michael Gurian calls “the sacred stories of the grandparents.”
In his book The Wonder of Aging he tells us that even men and women who have resisted spilling stories of their past hidden lives for decades, may do so for grandchildren. And often “…telling their stories is actually an identity-and legacy-building experience.”
As this grandfather reflects on his own choices he is proud, and also determined to instill a sense of possibilities and empowerment in his grandson–his legacy.
Margaret H. Mason mentions the importance of oral histories in her author note. Research by Dr. David Duke of Emory University finds that “the single most important thing we can do for our families is to develop a strong family narrative.”
Amazingly, his “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” (Read more in this New York Times article.) Apparently kids feel a stronger sense of control when they are well-informed on who came before them.
Gathering oral histories from older relatives or friends would be a terrific activity for children. Joining forces with an adult would also be an eye-opening and heartwarming inter-generational activity.
I highly recommend beginning by reading this lovely book together.
Oral Histories Activity: I’ve gathered a few tips and resources to assist you:
–Check out The Life Stories Interview on the “Life Story Commons” website of the University of Southern Maine.
–Remember–“People’s memories are generally attached to sensorial details and details of what is called ‘geomancy’ (details of place and time)…” (The Wonder of Aging) Ask for descriptions to get your interviewee warmed up.
–Ask “What did you learn when that happened?” Don’t forget to ask about their spiritual life—their “relationship with the mysteries of life, nature, the universe, and God.” (The Wonder of Aging)
Find more Perfect Picture Books at PPBF on Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog.
Read an interview of the author at Bridges Together.
Learn about Floyd Cooper and his most unusual method of illustration!
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