The Oldest Student

Today’s Perfect Picture Book is truly a treasure—the story of Mary Walker’s 121 years of perseverance, all the while holding onto her dream to learn how to read. Don’t miss it! And come back next Friday to hear from author, Rita Lorraine Hubbard. 

A momentary pause here to congratulate PATRICIA NOZELL, the winner from last week’s giveaway from Vivian Kirkfield! 

9781524768287_p0_v2_s600x595Title: The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

Written by: Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Illustrated by: Oge Mora

Schwartz & Wade, 2020

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes/topics: African American history, perseverance, reading, freedom

Whenever Mary Walker was tired, she would shield her eyes from the sun and watch the swallow-tailed kites dip and soar above the trees. That must be what it’s like to be free, she thought.

In 1848, Mary Walker was born into slavery. At age 15, she was freed, and by age 20, she was married and had her first child. By age 68, she had worked numerous jobs, including cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and selling sandwiches to raise money for her church. At 114, she was the last remaining member of her family. And at 116, she learned to read. From Rita Lorraine Hubbard and rising star Oge More comes the inspirational story of Mary Walker, a woman whose long life spanned from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, and who—with perseverance and dedication—proved that you’re never too old to learn.

Activities and Resources:
Timelines: Make a timeline of Mary Walker’s life. Make a timeline of your own important events. What would you like to do in your future? Put your ideas on your timeline.

History: How did life change during Mary Walker’s lifetime from 1848 to 1969? What changes would she have seen in transportation and communication? How did households and schools change during her 121 years? Write or draw about the differences in her early and later years.

Art: Use different kinds of paper to create your own collage about your dream for the future.

Discuss: How does reading give you freedom? What can you do after you learn how to read that you couldn’t do before?

Interview: Choose an older person you know such as a grandparent. Write down 5 questions you’d like to ask them about what life was like when they were a child. Report back or write what you learned about their life. How does it compare to your life?

Why I like love this book:
This is such an inspiring story, for young and old, of a hard-working, forbearing, patient woman. Her life is a history lesson, from slavery to emancipation to family responsibility to parenthood, through decades of back-breaking work and caring for others, all the while waiting to learn to read. Most of us today probably take for granted the opportunity to learn to read. This story allows us to see reading as a precious nugget, as freedom. Kids will recognize the steps she goes through and practice that she does as she learns to read and write. Hopefully, they’ll realize how lucky they are, seeing reading through Mary’s eyes, as a treasure that opens up the joy of learning, as a right that only came with freedom, as a gift that gave her wings. Hubbard brings Mary’s incredible strength, dedication, and dignity to each page of this important story. Mora’s illustrations are powerful and perfect.


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

Visit the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge on Kid Lit Frenzy on Wednesdays for more great nonfiction books for kids!


7 thoughts on “The Oldest Student

  1. I read this book a few days ago, and I’m still thinking about it, especially the first two lines, which are gold: “Whenever Mary Walker was tired, she would shield her eyes from the sun and watch the swallow-tailed kites dip and soar above the trees. That must be what it’s like to be free, she thought.” These lines immediately transported me to the minds of enslaved people who, just like Mary, longed to be free like the birds that soared high above them as they toiled in the fields. It’s heartbreaking to know that for over two hundred years, such a simple wish for human rights was cruelly denied to millions of enslaved people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so happy we are getting more and more stories about African Americans that focus beyond slavery. This is an extraordinary story and so inspiring for us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an inspiring and historically troublesome story! Authors are bringing so many social justice issues and stories into the light light for both children and adults. Nothing to make history interesting than an true story. I saw another mention about this book and have asked my library to order it! Thanks for your wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a remarkable woman and an inspiring life story! It shows strength and perseverance during some terribly troubling times, but Mary Walker continued to learn new things, even how to read at the age of 116! She truly was remarkable in many ways. Thank your for sharing this book.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.