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The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

This book, just published on January 7th, brought my class much joy. In fact, I received a chorus of “Thank You” when I had it in my hands upon students’ arrival the morning of January 8th. Genuine gratitude for my trip to Wellesley Books made me that much more excited to open it up with my readers.

What do you appreciate about these scrapbook end pages ?
Readers commented that they were a sneak peek…moments to be celebrated…small spotlights from Mary Walker’s life.

On Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s Craft:

  • Readers quickly caught onto the use of repetition. Mentioning reading through Mary’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue helped readers tune into Mary Walker’s motivation– she longed to be a reader herself!
  • The birds symbolized how Mary wanted to feel when she was enslaved. They were circled back to in some figurative language once Mary learned to read. She was “free as a bird” in more ways than one.

On Oge Mora’s Illustrations:

  • Readers were immediately struck by the artwork: “It looks like the illustrator collaged her! In the background, I think those are words from a newspaper.”
  • We noticed the background collages reflect Mary’s inability vs. ability to read. Makoto helped to articulate the observation with words: “Now that she has learned to read, the art shows words instead of squiggles.”

On Mary Walker’s Life:

  • Chase & Siyona described her as passionate and selfless. She spent so much time working to take care of her family even when she had a dream of her own.
  • At age 114, Mrs. Walker comments “Can’t read. Can’t write. I don’t know anything.” When readers were asked if they believed this to be true, they strongly disagreed. Mena & Raf explained that Mary knew how to work hard and love her family. She knew how to give back to those she cared about.

Without cue, fourth graders chimed in to join me in closing the story. “YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN,” we recited with smiles.

Rita Lorraine Hubbard offers an important transparency for readers in her Author’s Note. She shares, “Very little is known about Mary’s life from her emancipation at age fifteen until she learned to read at 116, but it is fact that her Bible waited 101 years for her to learn to read it . . .I chose to imagine what may have happened in between.” 4Q thanks you for your research, imagination, and honesty about your writing process!

1 thought on “The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard”

  1. What a fascinating person to feature in your classroom through what looks like a beautifully written and illustrated book! What a joyous teacher moment to have your students shout out “thank you” when you presented it. It speaks to the rich environment and love of children’s literature fostered in your classroom, that they so appreciate these stories. Well done – once again!

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