Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier.
Little, Brown, and Company Hachette Book Group, New York, 2010.
Picture book biography, 40 pages including end notes.
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, 2011.
2011 Caldecott Honor recipient.
Lexile: AD1100L (What does AD mean in Lexile?)
AR Level: 6.0 (worth 0.5 points) .
Dave the Potter was a real-life African-American slave and artist. He must have been incredibly strong, because he was able to successfully make pots as large as forty gallons. He knew how to read and write, because he marked poems into the sides of some of his pots. Beyond that we may never know many of the details of his life.
This book came up several times before I bought it. The first time, it was mistakenly labeled as fiction. Later I realized it was non-fiction and added it to the bottom of my TBR. After reading When the Beat Was Born by the same author, I decided to purchase this book, knowing that the writing would be excellent. And I loved it!
Since so little is definitively known about Dave, this book focuses on the process of making his pottery that Dave would likely have gone through, using sparse poetry, detailed and realistic images of the process, and collage backgrounds imagining the world he inhabited.
The book begins with the way we look at the ground (dirt) compared to how Dave would have looked at it (clay, the substance that shaped his life), and then how we would look at a pot compared to him, before starting the process. It eventually ends with a few lines of Dave’s own poetry, and by that point we are hopefully seeing the world through Dave’s eyes enough to have a better understanding of him and his poetry.
I’ve read a couple books with Collier’s art before. His collage work is certainly intensive and detailed, but I haven’t always enjoyed it. In this book, his drawings and background collages are spot-on. The realistic details of Dave’s process of creating his pots was based on visiting an actual artist’s studio and watching him throw a pot. His illustrator’s note also states that the background imagery consciously references slavery to remind readers of that aspect of Dave’s story.
Part of this book that I particularly loved was that it showed a large black man with a gentle heart and love of poetry. This is an image that our sheltered white students particularly need to see as it directly combats the stereotype of the angry or dangerous black man.
The fold-out on page 17 took my breath away. I wasn’t expecting one (usually it’s advertised) and the wording “pulled out the shape of a jar” combined with the picture sequence over pages 16 and 17, was perfect. The balance and thoughtfulness that went into the images and the words throughout the story make this a great book for poring over on a rainy day.
Not long after that, poetic license is taken in imagining the jar before returning to the sequence of creation. In some other works this would have bothered me, but here I felt it did a good job of conveying one option that might have been in Dave’s head without putting words in his mouth. The simile suggested freedom and the importance of family without straying too far from the dangerous reality of his life as a slave and a potter doing immense physical labor with skill and beauty.
This is a slow and even somber read, without the high energy and excitement of When the Beat Was Born, but it would still make a great read-aloud. Beyond discussions of slavery and Black History, this book would also be an excellent choice for a class or family studying poetry or pottery.
The end has information on Dave’s life and further poems by him. Both the author and illustrator write about their process and how they worked on this book, which could be incorporated into a unit on writing about history (ask students “How was their job more difficult because less was known about Dave?” “What sources were they able to find to help them?” etc.)
Overall, this was another home run from Hill complimented by excellent work from Collier. This sparse and gorgeous book is not about slavery, but doesn’t erase the fact that its protagonist was a slave. Teachers often focus on the big five of black history, but this book shines a light on one man who lived a slave but left his mark on the world. Recommended.