Steamboat School

This week, we’re back to Perfect Picture Book Friday with an important story, perfectly crafted with beautiful illustrations, and writing that touches the heart.

Title: Steamboat Schoolimg_1258
Written by: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by: Ron Husband
Disney-Hyperion, 2016, historical fiction, inspired by a true story
Suitable for ages: 4-7, (my opinion 5-10)
Lexile: AD660
Themes/topics: education, African American history, courage

I always thought being brave was for grown-up heroes doing big, daring deeds. But Mama says that sometimes courage is just an ordinary boy like me doing a small thing, as small as picking up a pencil.

Brief synopsis (from the book jacket)
Missouri, 1847
When James first started school, his sister practically had to drag him there. The classroom was dark and dreary, and James knew everything outside was more exciting than anything he’d find inside.
But his teacher taught him otherwise. “We make our own light here,” Reverend Meachum told James.
And through hard work and learning, they did, until their school was shut down by a new law forbidding African American education in Missouri. Determined to continue teaching his students, Reverend John Berry Meachum decided to build a new school-a floating school in the Mississippi River, just outside the boundary of the unjust law.

Activities and Resources:
• Bravery: Pre-reading – Generate a list of what “being brave” is. Post-reading – Come back to the list and add to it. How have your ideas of bravery changed?
• Setting: How can time and place change a seemingly ordinary action to one that requires courage? What are some small brave actions that you might see or do in your time and place?
• The last page, Explore More, contains a list of further resources.

Why I like this book:
It’s important for kids to recognize and appreciate all kinds of bravery and understand that many of their peers are called on to be brave in ways they may have never considered.
History comes alive in the illustrations, and the story takes on special significance by being told by a young boy. Hopkinson shares the story of a heroic teacher by showing the effect he had on one child. Seeing this slice of history through James’ eyes provides a window into this time and place.
It’s a great tribute to teachers who find a way to teach and reach children who face obstacles of all kinds. It also opens up the door to discussion on the importance of education and why people were/are willing to risk so much.

As a writer, I absolutely love the way Hopkinson shows bravery in small acts. The use of the pencil as the instrument of courage and opposition is brilliant. Ordinary people, ordinary objects, ordinary acts – courage isn’t always what we might think.
To me, the heart of the story is in the quote, “We make our own light here.” Hopkinson uses various images of light and threads them through the story, creating a truly beautiful telling. After reading the book a couple times, I thought, “Wow, so well done!” And I asked Deborah if she would share her process in a “Mining for Heart” post…

On February 3, Deborah Hopkinson will be my guest on Mining for Heart. Come back and learn about her process of digging for the heart of a story in historical fiction.

Visit author Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books for a plethora of picture books listed by title and topic/theme, each with teacher/parent resources.


14 thoughts on “Steamboat School

  1. definitely looking for a copy of this one – I love the idea of a steamboat school. And the historical fiction link is wonderful.


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