The positive reviews keep coming in for Lift Your Light a Little Higher. Here is a lengthy excerpt from reviewer Rita Lorraine’s assessment of Heather Henson and Bryan Collier’s picture book:
In the quiet darkness, a slave leads a group of “customers” through an amazing cave, and when they write their names on the walls by the light of his lantern, he teaches himself to read.
This is the story line in author Heather Henson’s quiet new picture book, Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop, Slave Explorer. In the book, Stephen is purchased as a young boy and ordered by his owner to “”learn the ways of the cave well enough to lead paying folks around in the deep.” Stephen does just that. And he also does other amazing things: For example, he is “the first to lay eyes upon those eyeless fish” and “those craw dads white as bone,” both found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave. He is also the “first to cross what even learned men have deemed un-crossable” (The “Bottomless Pit”). Yes, Stephen is a discoverer…though like most slaves, he doesn’t go down in history that way.
In Ms. Henson’s Author’s Note, she admits to knowing very little about Stephen Bishop’s life, yet she still manages to breathe beauty and nobility into Stephen’s personality. Her simple, straightforward prose loans a soft-spoken flavor to Stephen’s words, and a courage and resolve to his deeds.
Through Ms. Henson’s prose, readers understand that, slave though he was, Stephen attained a type of freedom in those caves. Readers will share his pride in the fact that he alone held his lantern high and led adventurers through the damp, dangerous, and patchy darkness–and then back again to safety.
Artist Bryan Collier delivers with poignant illustrations of sad, soulful eyes and quiet strength; of courage in the shady depths of the Mammoth Cave. In fact, it is easy to see that Mr. Collier somehow tapped into Stephen Bishop’s quiet courage and resolve and brought it to the canvas. Thanks for these lovely illustrations, Mr. Collier!
Lift Your Light a Little Higher was the subject, along with Jonah Winters’ My Name Is James Madison Hemings, of an in-depth Booklist essay on “Two new books about men who lived under slavery [that] bring up interesting questions about the elasticity of biography, the discernment capabilities of younger audiences, and the lines between history and historical fiction.”
The author, Ilene Cooper, describes Lift Your Light thusly:
Heather Henson’s Lift Your Light a Little Higher … takes readers inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where Stephen Bishop, also known as Guide, leads tourists through the twists and turns of the underground wonder. In a come-close first-person narrative, Bishop, a slave, describes how he came to spend his life underground, so attuned to his surroundings that he discovered a previously unknown species of eyeless crawdads. Bishop learned to write by watching folks scrawl their names on the walls, and his own name can still be seen there. Poetic and evocative, the story chronicles what it was like for Bishop to cup a deerskin moccasin in his palm or to feel pride in being Guide, “a man able to walk before other men, not behind.”
Using watercolor and collage, primarily in dark greens and browns, artist Bryan Collier provides bold, striking art on oversize pages. Children will feel the intensity of both the natural world and a man who understands his corner of it.
Cooper’s article raises interesting questions about fictionalization of historical subjects and how we can explain children that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not always as clear as they think. It can (and should) be read in full at the Booklist Reader website.
Come join Heather this Saturday, 24th, 11:00 am, at Ky Soaps and Such in Stanford, KY. Kids and adults welcome! Reading, book signing, cookies, locally made products such as Plainview Farm all natural goat’s milk soaps and lotions! Visit Kentucky Soaps and Such for more info.
Web Exclusive – September 6, 2016
LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER
A cave guide to remember
BookPage review by Billie B. Little
From about 1838 to 1857, Stephen Bishop was an underground guide in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. With carefully chosen wording, rich historical detail and luminous images, author Heather Henson and Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier bring Stephen’s story to light.
Stephen guides the reader through tunnels and quagmires of the cave and his own life. He tells us he can neither read nor write—it’s against the law to teach him these skills because he’s a slave: “Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule.” But Stephen has a yearning to learn, and he does, in a law-abiding manner. By the light of a candle, deep below the ground, when the visitors write their names on the cave’s ceiling, Stephen is watching and learning. In time, he writes his own name, too, along with the names of his wife and son.
Stephen hints at other secrets of Mammoth Cave. He tells of the men who discovered the cave and tracked bear beneath the earth. He makes his own discoveries of eyeless fish and albino crayfish. He finds a deerskin moccasin in the passageways below and wonders about his own legacy. Today, though Stephen no longer walks the cave, his name remains there for visitors to see, if only they look carefully.
This sensitive portrayal hints that every man and woman who walked this earth, free or slave, has a story worth telling.
Billie B. Little is the Founding Director of Discovery Center at Murfree Spring, a hands-on museum in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Heather talks about her new book, LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER, coming in September, 2016!
Q: What’s LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHERabout?
A: It tells the story of a man named Stephen Bishop who was a slave in Kentucky. He was born around 1821 and brought as a teenager by his master to Mammoth Cave, which was already a big tourist destination in the early 1800s, if you can believe it! People all over the world became fascinated with this enormous cave in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky – as they should have been! We now know that it’s the longest cave system in the world.
Q: Why this story?
A: When I moved back to Kentucky, I took my kids to Mammoth Cave, a place I had visited with my parents as a child. I loved going down into the earth, loved the weirdness and vastness of this underground world. I felt immediately that there were stories down there. I learned about the slaves who were guides and I learned about a group of people who had been brought to live in the cave because their doctor thought the constant cool temperature would cure their tuberculosis – which it didn’t! Most of them died. I knew I had to write about the cave.
Q: How did you focus on Stephen Bishop?
A: A friend and fellow Kentucky writer named Elizabeth Orndorff had written a play called DEATH BY DARKNESS, which was produced at my family’s summer stock theater (that’s another story!) One of the main characters in the play was Stephen Bishop, and I became fascinated by him. I started doing research, although there wasn’t a huge amount since Stephen was a slave and often records were not kept. And since it was against the law for slaves to read or write, sadly we do not have an account of Stephen’s story in his own words.
Q: Why did you choose to tell the story from Stephen’s point of view?
A: All my stories are character driven. When I sit down to write, I may know what I want to write about, but I’m not sure exactly how I’ll tell the story until a character starts speaking to me. I actually first wrote a draft of the book from the perspective of the cave! But I didn’t feel like it worked for kids – I wanted them to feel as engaged about the history and place as I was. When I went back to start a second draft, Stephen Bishop’s voice came to me loud and clear. Right away I knew I was on the right path.
Q: What made Stephen so important to the cave?
A: There were several slave guides, but Stephen became the best known from around 1838 to 1857. Writers of the day who visited the cave mention Stephen’s eloquence and intelligence, his deep knowledge of the cave, his important discoveries.
Stephen was the first to draw a map of the cave and the first to cross the “Bottomless Pit” – a huge chasm that had stopped other explorers. He was the first to discover a new species of eyeless fish and albino crawdads found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave.
Stephen Bishop was an amazing explorer, and yet he never got the credit he deserved because he was a slave.
Q: What happened to Stephen?
A: He married, he had a child. He was promised freedom by his master, but it came only the year before he died. What I find so strange is that we don’t know anything about his death. He was only 37, which is young even for back then. He’d been free for a year. He was loved, he was respected, he was such an important part of Mammoth Cave — they buried him near the original entrance. And yet, we don’t know how he died.
Q: What do you want kids to learn from this book?
A: In most of my picture books, I write about pieces of history that have been forgotten or lost. I want kids to understand that there are other stories out there, amazing stories, beyond what’s taught in history books. History is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Q: Stephen talks about learning to read and write in the cave. Is this part true?
A: According to my research, it is. As I said, it was against the law for slaves to read or write. But white visitors to the cave liked to have their names written on the cave walls and ceilings –historical graffiti! They don’t allow it today! They used a long taper with a candle attached and the flame would burn a line so they could write. Many of the slaves, including Stephen learned to read and write this way, from watching and helping.
Q: The importance of reading was a big part of your last picture book, THAT BOOK WOMAN. Are these books connected?
A: Yes! Reading is hugely important to me. It’s what I love doing the most (if I’m not writing.) In THAT BOOK WOMAN, a young boy surprises himself and his family by learning to love books and reading through the perserverence of one brave book woman. In LIFT YOUR LIGHT, Stephen longs to read and write, but it’s denied to him, so he learns the only way he can.
Q: Any last words about LIFT YOUR LIGHT?
A: I believe there are so many stories out there – stories of people who have been marginalized thorughout history, stories that are so important for us to know, stories that make us who and what we are today. In this book I try to imagine a life from a few written descriptions, from a few facts. In this book, I try to imagine what Stephen Bishop, Cave Explorer and Guide, would have to say to us if history – if slavery — had not silenced him.
“[A] fitting tribute to a historical figure who led so many yet had to remain behind,” is the conclusion to a terrific review for Lift Your Light a Little Higher from The Horn Book, the highly respected publication about books for children and young adults.
The full review is below:
****STARRED REVIEW IN THE JULY 15, 2016 ISSUE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS***
LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER
By Heather Henson; illus. by Bryan Collier
(Atheneum; ISBN 978-1-4814-2095-2; 9/06/2016; Fall 2016 catalog)
This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t.Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death. Collier’s strikingly symbolic collage illustrations often draw a stark line between what appears above and below the ground, emphasizing the covert nature of Bishop’s achievements. Perhaps the book’s most memorable illustration appears when, speaking in Bishop’s voice, Henson says that slaves are “bought and sold…same as an ox or mule” while overlapping silhouettes of black and brown textured faces appear within the collage cutout of an ox plowing a field. Rich backmatter will help young readers understand more about the historical context in which Bishop lived and died. A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year.(Picture book/biography 4-8)
Frank X Walker is the current Kentucky Poet Laureate. He also happens to be a Danville native and a DHS grad (just like yours truly.) So some literary types in Danville have organized the first ever literary fest in Frank’s honor. Be sure to come to Danville and check it out. Here’s the schedule:
The Frank X Walker Literary Festival
Thursday, September 18, 2014
“Turn Me Loose…. The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” Convocation
Newlin Hall/Norton Center/7:30 p.m.
Featuring Frank X Walker
Friday, September 19, 2014
- Frank X Walker … School Presentations
- Authors in our Schools (Danville/Boyle)
Writing Workshops/Oral Readings/Student Presentations
- Boyle County Public Library: Heather Henson/Marie Bradby: Reading & Talk 1:00-3:00 p.m.
Picturing Words Smithsonian Exhibit 9:00-5:30 p.m.
- Frank X Walker Community Reception Danville High School 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Danville High School
10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
- Oral Presentations by Frank X Walker and Authors
- Community Readings
- Book Fair 10:00 – 4:00 p.m.
- Frank X Walker “State Historical Marker” Project
- Concessions : Dunn’s BBQ
Boyle County Public Library
- Family Day of Literacy/ Readings/ Workshops 10:30-12:00 p.m.
- Picturing Words Smithsonian Exhibit 9:00-5:00 p.m.
Frank X Walker Rick Lee
Minnie Adkins Maurice Manning
Amy Barkman Marcia Mount Shoop
Wendell Berry David Nahm
Marie Bradby Ricardo Nazario-Colon’
Devine Carama Guerney Norman
Hasan Davis Mike Norris
Mitchell Douglas Yolantha Pace
Carolyn DuPont Katheryn Ragle
Ruth Ann Fogle Octavia Sexton
Thomas Freese C.A. Shelley
Hazel “Sybil” Hall Judy Sizemore
Louis Hatchett Penny Smith
Heather Henson Patsi Trollinger
Shayla Lawson Crystal Wilkinson