Friday, October 3, 2008

African American: Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color

Alexander, Elizabeth and Marilyn Nelson. 2007. Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong. ISBN: 1590784561.

Through a collection of poems, authors Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson tell the true story of teacher Prudence Crandall who opened her school to African American girls in 1833 Canterbury, Connecticut and of their perseverance through the actions of the townspeople who are racially opposed to Crandall’s decision to teach young misses of color.

Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color is a beautiful book of poems that relays the story of a teacher and her African American students’ during the 1830’s. Award-winning poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson’s collaboration presents twenty-four poems, separated into six parts, provides vignettes to the story. The poems are written in the sonnet form. Each have fourteen lines and either follows the traditional rhyming scheme or follows the innovative free verse style. Several are creatively separated into multiple stanzas to make the specific sonnet affective in telling and can become an overall intriguing poem for the readers to read and reflect upon.

Each poem has a different voice and portrays different thoughts and feelings that tells the story from its beginning with students leaving their home to attend the school to learn, to the education, to when Miss Crandall and her students hearing and experiencing the heated opinion of the townspeople, to when Miss Crandall has nothing left but to close the school. Despite being in poetic form, the text remarkably is rich and understandable to the readers. This is particularly seen in the sonnet “Fire from the Gods:”

I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
Like Brer Mosquito on Brer Elephant,
now I know my capacity for awe
is infinite: this thirst is permanent,
the well bottomless, my good fortune vast.
An uneducated mind is a clenched fist
that can open, like a bud, into a flower
whose being reaches, every waking hour,
and who sleeps a fragrant dream of gratitude.
Now it’s “illegal,” “illegitimate”
to teach brown girls who aren’t state residents.
As if Teacher’s stealing fire from the gods.
As if the Ancestors aren’t tickled to death to see
a child they lived toward find her minds infinity (p. 19).
and in “End”:
Upturned stacks of Webster’s blue-backed spellers.
broken slates. Liberators burned to ash.
Ninety panes of first-floor windows smashed,
frame wood splinters and jagged as tinder.

I can no longer protect my students.
Strangely, it is not God’s words that ring
in my head as I search for understanding,
rather, words that I saw on a charred reader:

I must remind you that the earth is round.
Men and animals live on the surface.
There is no comfort in these words,
yet the fact of them comforts me: schoolbooks.

I am a teacher of colored misses,
But I can no longer protect my students (p.44).

Within each poem, to create the authors added to the different voices that they created is have different tones and how they address people. The schoolgirls call Miss Crandall “Teacher,” “Miss Teacher,” “Teacher Pru,” and “Miss Crandall” The poem “Miss Ann Eliza Hammond” wonderfully illustrates a student’s opinion and speech:

I brought here, in a bag between my breasts,
money from Mama’s friends who had bought herself,
then saved enough, by working without rest,
to free four friends. This woman gave me her wealth
of carefully folded dollars to I could take
Miss Crandall’s course of study. And within a week
of my arrival, I was summoned to appear in court.
The judge ruled I’d have to pay a fine, depart,
or be whipped naked.

Honey, the first white fool
that thinks he gone whip me better think again.
Touch me, and you’ll draw back a nub, white man.
I ain’t payin’, and I’m stayin’. People’s dream brought me to this school.
I’m their future, in a magic looking glass.
That judge and the councilmen can kiss my rusty black (p. 26).

Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are a pure compliment to the poems. Through an innovative subtractive multi-medium technique, the artwork is colorful with a color scheme of neutral tans and accents of pinks, greens, purple, and blue and provides a softness that adds to the overall presence that is given with the book. In particular are the depictions of the students. Not one looks a like and have varying sizes of noses, lips, skin color and hairstyles. In particular the portraits for the poems “Miss Ann Elizabeth Hammond” and “Arson at Midnight” are beautifully executed. To keep the book appearance light and airy the illustrations are kept to one or two per two-page spread and only occupy a corner or side. There are double-page spread illustrations at the beginning of each of the six sections that depict the schoolhouse and the students. Though the clothing is more representative of what was worn during and after the Civil War, the illustrations are wonderfully done and are perfect for the book.

To complete the book there is an introduction that provides the details and historical facts to put the poems into context. Finally, there is a note from the authors that present information on the creative process of their collaboration and how their poems only present a certain parts of the entire story that allow the readers to think, imagine, and explore the meanings of the poems with the historical story.

Though their story is relatively unknown, through the collaborative work of Alexander and Nelson, Prudence Crandall and her schoolgirl are now part of the treasured books that tell the powerful stories of this part of America’s history. This book is perfect for all school and public libraries.

Twenty-four clear, beautiful poems in different voices tell the stirring history of white teacher Prudence Crandall, who defied bigotry in Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1833 by setting up a school for 20 young African American women, many of them freed slaves, who dared to attend. Alexander and Nelson, both Connecticut poets, use dramatic sonnets to tell how Crandall and her students braved resistance to “teach and learn.” The pupils speak directly of the anguish of family parting (illiteracy “means silence when you leave home”); the wonder of learning (“I didn’t know how much I didn’t know”); the racism, including the “etymology” of invective (“no one in town will sell us anything”); and the horrifying climax of “Arson at Midnight,” when 300 men attacked the school and closed it down. A long introduction details the historical facts, and in a final note the poets (Nelson is Connecticut’s poet laureate) talk about how each has used the sonnet form. The images in their poems and in Cooper’s quiet, dramatic pastel illustrations compellingly capture the haunting history. Pair this picture book for older readers with Suzanne Jurmain’s The Forbidden Schoolhouse (2005) and books about the KKK -- Hazel Rochman. Booklist, published by the American Library Association.

Two years after Suzanne Jurmain's nonfiction chronicle, Forbidden Schoolhouse (2005), comes a glorious poetic celebration of the teacher and students at a Connecticut school that defied mid-19th-century convention to educate African-American girls. Divided into six sections, four sonnets in each, the voices of the 24 girls tell, one by one, the tale, from hope and excitement at the beginning of the enterprise to fear and defiance as forces both institutional and vigilante conspire to destroy Miss Crandall's School. Nelson's sonnets adhere to a strict form while Alexander's explore the boundaries of the form; each distills the powerful emotions inspired by the story. For example, "Fire from the Gods": "I didn't know how much I didn't know, / Like Brer Mosquito on Brer Elephant, / now I know my capacity for awe / is infinite. . . . " Cooper's soft pastel illustrations provide a muted counterpoint to the text, mixing depictions of school and students with images of the natural world in a lovely rhythm. A foreword provides a brief prose history of the school; a concluding authors' note explains their collaborative process. (Poetry. 10+)

*Learn more about Miss Crandall, her school and her students with the book: The Forbidden School House: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students by Suzanne Jurmain
*Have the students explore the resources available on the Prudence Crandall Museum’s website:

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