January 09, 2020


The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. By Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Illustrated by Oge Mora. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     An exceptional book about a person who became extraordinary through something that young readers will find very ordinary indeed, Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s The Oldest Student is a biography of a onetime slave who lived to the amazing age of 121 and, in the process, was proclaimed the oldest student in the United States. On the surface, the life of Mary Walker (1848-1969) contained nothing highly unusual except for her longevity: she grew up, worked hard, married, had children, and eventually lived out her days in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  But as Hubbard makes clear in a book structured deliberately as well-deserved hagiography, beneath this veneer of the everyday lay a woman whose childhood determination to do something she was initially forbidden to do – read – remained with her for a century until, eventually, she was able to bring her ambition to reality.

     Hubbard neither glosses over the depredations of slavery nor dwells on them. She simply uses them to set the scene by explaining the rule that “slaves should not be taught to read or write, or do anything that might help them learn to do so” – quickly establishing just why Mary never learned to read. Hubbard invents for Mary a childhood determination to learn as well as a preoccupation with the freedom of birds flying. Neither is much of a stretch, although neither is factual; but both help Hubbard connect the early and later parts of Mary’s life thematically. Similarly, Hubbard does not explain why Mary chose to stay in the South after emancipation – parents may need to help explain the history to children – but she discusses the long hours and days of work that Mary endured for many years, thus reinforcing the notion of there never being time to learn reading. In fact, little about Mary’s life from age 15 to age 116 is known, as Hubbard explains at the back of the book, so the specifics of this story are largely made up. They ring true, however, since they are quotidian matters – and there is nothing to indicate that Mary lived an out-of-the-ordinary life through the many post-slavery decades.

     Halfway through the book, Hubbard is finally ready to focus on centenarian Mary’s determination to learn to read – and at this point, the excellence of Oge Mora’s illustrations really becomes clear. The mixed-media pictures throughout are beautifully done, but it is when the focus on Mary’s desire to read takes center stage that Mora’s design carries the story: she shows papers, signs, billboards, notices and more as a series of squiggles, making it visually clear that this is how things must have looked to Mary when she did not know the alphabet or how the letters formed words. The picture of Mary asleep at a table, resting her head on her arm, as visions of letters waft through her dreams and pages of her printing of her own name lie beneath her fingers, is a perfect encapsulation of Mary’s eventual success at learning to read. Mora’s inclusion of little bits of newspaper clippings in her designs, and of mundane-but-special items such as a piece of paper hanging on a wall and saying “Happy Birthday, Gramma Walker,” makes The Oldest Student as special visually as Hubbard’s storytelling makes it narratively. A two-page illustration showing Mary looking out a window at everyday signs on buildings – now all words she can read – is a simply beautiful way of bringing home the book’s message about the wonder of reading and of one woman’s determination to learn. A climactic scene, in which people celebrating Mary’s birthday go silent so Mary can read to them from her Bible, is as heartwarming as can be.

     Today’s children, the target audience for this lovely book, will of course be reading it (perhaps with a little adult help here and there). And they will likely think little of the wonder of knowing how to read, since it is such a small, everyday miracle, so easily taken for granted. After they finish The Oldest Student, though, at least some of them will understand just how important reading is and how much people are missing when they cannot do so. In this way, Hubbard’s and Mora’s story of Mary Walker – and, indeed, Mary Walker’s life itself – can carry a message about the importance of words to a new, video-saturated generation. It is hard to imagine Mary Walker having a better legacy than that.

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