Disney Press publishes a lot of picture books, most of which are full of bright colors and fun for both kids and adults. But Steamboat School stands out for a number of reasons. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but the cover of Steamboat School reveals this this is no ordinary childrens book.
Deborah Hopkinson has drawn inspiration from a real man, Reverend John Berry Meachum, a former slave who bought his own freedom and became a reverend and teacher in St. Louis. When the state passed a law forbidding persons of color from being educated, he took his school to a steamboat on the Mississippi River.
The book takes place in 1847 and focuses on a young boy named James and his sister Tassie who are so excited for the opportunity to go to school. One day during class, law enforcement shuts down the school due to a new law prohibiting James from getting an education because of the color of his skin. But through a loophole in the law, James and Tassie soon find themselves learning again aboard a steamboat.
Steamboat School is a great way to introduce kids to an important and ugly part of America’s history. I found it to be much more effective than any history book because kids (and adults) will instantly empathize with James’ optimism and heartbreak over gaining and then losing the right to an education. One of the great values of the book is the importance of learning.
For parents and educators hoping to use Steamboat School as an educational resource, Hopkinson has provided some excellent background information on Reverend John Berry Meachum, his family, and their historical significance to the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. She has also highlighted other resources, including websites and childrens books, to expand on a child’s desire to know more about this period in our history. This can all be found among the last pages of the book.
I really love the illustrations, which have a rustic charm thanks to artist Ron Husband. While thumbing through the pages, a few of the designs struck me as uniquely “Disney.” While reading Husband’s biography, it was revealed that he spent thirty-eight years as an animator at Disney.
Steamboat School is an amazing book that will help children learn about some of the injustices that have and continue to exist in the world. While this book is brand new, I expect future editions to have some form of a metalic seal on the cover from the awards it will undoubtedly receive. And for elementary school educators this is a must have, particularly during Black History Month.