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.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer chosen to represent Kentucky at National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (August 16, 2016) – Kentucky native and award-winning children’s author Heather Henson’s forthcoming book, Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer, has been chosen to represent Kentucky in the Pavilion of the States at the 16th Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C in September.
The National Book Festival is scheduled for Saturday, September 24 and is sponsored by the Library of Congress, Center for the Book. The Festival includes a Pavilion of the States, at which every state highlights a children’s or young adult book that was written by an author from that state, or is about a subject relevant to the state, or in Kentucky’s case, both. For more information about the National Book Festival and the Pavilion of the States, please visit www.loc.gov/bookfest.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2016) tells the story of Stephen Bishop, the mid-19th century slave who explored and gave tours through Mammoth Cave. The book is illustrated by Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award-winner Bryan Collier.
A native of Danville, Heather Henson is the Managing Director of the Pioneer Playhouse, established in 1950 by her father, the late Col. Eben C. Henson. She is the Christopher Award-winning author of several children’s books, including That Book Woman, about the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky; Angel Coming, about the Frontier Nursing Service; and Dream of Night, a middle-grades novel. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Film Studies from The New School University in New York City, and an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from City College/City University of New York. For many years, she was an Editor of books for young readers at HarperCollins Publishers in New York. For more information on Heather Henson, please visit www.heatherhensonbooks.com.
Henson will also be at the 35th Annual Kentucky Book Fair on November 5th at the Frankfort Convention Center.
The Kentucky Humanities Council is a non-profit Kentucky corporation affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. For information about the council’s programs and services, visit www.kyhumanities.org. ###
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
I’ll be in beautiful downtown Stanford, Kentucky on Saturday, April 12, 2014 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. along with other Kentucky writers. Please join me! I’ll be reading my books to kids at 11:00 a.m. Here’s more info about the event!
It’s become a ritual to sign an “L” for the last night of the entire Playhouse season. Here I am in front of an audience of 500 (!!), introducing the final show, thanking our regular patrons, bidding adieu until next year….
Pioneer Playhouse was started by my dad in 1950, and my family has continued to run it since then. Hard to believe we’re 64 years old…. and still going, still talking about the future…future plays, future actors, future programs.
We do 5 plays a summer. One every two weeks. Plus a 3 day comedy show to end out the season. It’s a grueling schedule. Rehearsing one play during the day while performing another at night. Tearing down one set within a 36 hour period and putting up a completely new one.
About 15,000 people come through our doors over the summer. Many have been coming for years. We have patrons who first saw a play here 40 years ago. We have some who haven’t missed a show in 20 years.
The theatre was my dad’s dream. He wanted to be an actor, went to NYC, but had to return home to Kentucky, so he decided to bring “Broadway to the Bluegrass.” After he died, almost 10 years ago now, my mom and sister took up the reigns. Since I’d moved back to Kentucky to write, I’d help out when needed.
But when Holly died last year, I stepped in as Managing Director along with my brother Robby. Maybe we could’ve just let the dream die, but it seems impossible to even contemplate. So we work…we work really, really hard. We don’t just put on plays. We do an outreach program that teaches playwrighting to inmates at Northpoint prison here in Danville. We started a similar program to teach playwrighting to seniors this year. We were the force behind the hugely success first ever Danville Irish Festival, during which we mounted an original play set in Ireland, and organized Irish musicians, dancers, singers, and storytellers to come to Danville to give us a taste of Irish culture.
So much time! My husband jokes that I work over 100 hours a week in the summer! It’s certainly more than a “regular” job. It’s exhausting, overwhelming at times. But it’s also incredibly rewarding.
Night after night, I shake every hand that comes through the gates of the Playhouse. I give hugs to familiar patrons, just as Holly did. I ask them how they like the show after it’s over, and listen as they tell me “It’s the best we’ve seen yet!” Or sometimes they’re honest and say, “I liked the last one better.” But overall, they’re happy, happy to have escaped into another world for a couple of hours. And that makes me feel good, makes me feel it’s worth all the work that goes into keeping a 64 year old theatre alive.
“See you next year!” I call out to the crowd as they pass by, and for the last few nights there have been tears in my eyes. I’m running on fumes from the breakneck pace of the summer, am looking forward to staying home at night with my family, not having to deal with the million little things that pop up during the day. But when it comes down to it, I’m sad to say goodbye to everyone — actors and patrons alike — I’ve come to know all summer. This is the way my dad felt, I’m sure of it, and my sister too. It’s one of the reasons we Hensons can’t really ever think about saying “goodbye,” but always… “see you next year!”
My dad used to quote Shakespeare at the end of the season, as the actors drove away, waving good bye from their car windows. He’d say:
“Our revels now are ended,
These actors as I foretold you,
Were all spirits
And are melted
Into thin air, into thin air.”
In my book about a tween growing up at a theatre a lot like the Playhouse (Here’s How I See It/Here’s How It Is), I have Junebug, the main character quoting the words because her dad can’t just then. But it’s ritual for her, a tradition, and so it must be done. The show must go on.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to take my kids to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY. The Ali center is jewel of a structure outside; inside it is a beautiful and moving tribute to the boxer, the humanitarian, the man who has spent his life fighting racism in this country and around the world. Through the interactive exhibits my kids learned about what it means to stand up for your rights and put your convictions on the line. I felt like it was a fitting way to celebrate MLK Day, as well as the day the first African-American president of the US was sworn in for a second term. Above is a picture of my sons sporting their hats from the center with a couple of Ali’s trademark phrases on the front.
At the center, during a film giving the highlights of Ali’s life, the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling is often quoted. Here is part of it below:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same:. If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss: If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much: If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
When you go to the center, or if you visit the website (alicenter.org), you’ll see a list of Ali’s core beliefs. Here they are:
Belief in oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s future.
A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise.
The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
I’ve been unable to update this blog for months. Here’s why: my sister’s cancer came back with a vengeance. She was gone in a flash.
Holly was my only sister, my big sister. She was born in Danville, KY on July 19, 1960. She grew up on the stage at Pioneer Playhouse, the theatre our dad, Eben Henson, started in 1950. She was always involved in one way or another at the Playhouse — acting, directing, managing. She became artistic director when Dad passed 8 years ago.
Holly died where she lived — in her home not a stone’s throw from the Playhouse stage. She died on May 27, 2012, just as the Playhouse company was assembling — the new actors arriving for the 63rd season. After she was gone, the company meeting went on without her; auditions for the first show continued. Rehearsals began. That’s the way Holly wanted it. The show must always go on.
It’s been a hard few weeks without her. Robby and my mom, Charlotte, are the ones who run the Playhouse now. I pitch in where I can. The family has vowed to keep Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre alive another year in Holly’s memory, and then we’ll see what happens. It’s hard to imagine ever closing it though. The Playhouse has been a part of my family’s very fabric, our heart and soul.
Every night I stand to greet patrons arriving for the show (one of my duties), and I’m constantly told how much I look like Holly, how much her personal greeting meant to them, how much the Playhouse continues to mean to them, how much they miss Holly, but are glad to see us going on as a family. It’s heart-breaking and gratifying all at once. It makes me feel sad. But it also makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.
Holly felt the same way. A few years ago, she started an “Artistic Director Diaries” as part of a podcast the Playhouse was doing at the time. Holly’s diary entries aren’t long, some of them just talk about the mundane day to day running of the theatre. But one passage jumped out at me when I read through it after she died:
Is it worth it? To keep this place going, under immense stress and strain?
Last night a mosquito kept me awake….I thought about my mother, who is 79, playing guitar and singing every night for the supper guests, as she has done for over 50 years. I thought about all the changes she has seen. All the sets, all the actors, the loss of a husband — as she stands in the back, enjoying the sound of the dialogue and the audience laughing.
All summer my trailer has filled up with flowers and photos and press releases and memories. There have been five opening nights. I’ll never see these same people, gathered in the same place ever again.
I’m so busy, I seldom have time to think about Dad. Except in an odd pause or two, and the realization that he’s not here still has a tinge of surprise — like he’s just taking a nap and will be back shortly and take all my worries away. Like he’ll invite me to sit beside him, as we greet the audience together.
I still don’t know whose dream is more important — mine or my dad’s. I still don’t know why the “show must go on.” There are only 20 outdoor theatres left in the entire US. If one more closes, does it matter?
If I wanted, I could walk away from all of this…into my own story. But how lonely would my summers be, without laughter and tears. At least when I’m stepping into Dad’s shoes, I can see the path.
I guess it’s my turn now, Holly, to follow in your footsteps. And I’ll do my best. But already the summer — and the path — seem lonely without you here.
I’m heading up to Northern Kentucky University tomorrow to participate in their annual Bookfest on Friday, May 4. It’s a really incredible day long program in which about 500 middle grade students from around the state come to the NKU campus in Highland Heights to talk about books and reading.
Here is a link to NKU’s webpage about it, with a really terrific video showing highlights of years past: