Review of the Day: Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself created by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge
Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself
Created by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge
Zest Books (an imprint of Lerner)
Ages 12 and up
On shelves March 7th
Remember a couple years ago when the words “primary sources” were uttered with a near reverence in classrooms across the country? This occurred during the initial rise of the CORE Curriculum, and all of a sudden teachers everywhere were mesmerized by the prospect of “first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it” (or so says the Healey Library of UMass). Of course, for some kids there’s an inherent problem with primary sources: They can be darned difficult to read. Old-timey language may be authentic, and a kid can be taught to read it, but don’t go to it if you’re hoping to be enthralled by narrative or entranced by the material. These days primary sources are often just a requirement in a homework assignment. It takes ingenuity and creativity and just a little bit of knowledge to figure out how to turn, say, an 18th century memoir into a gripping epic for teens. It takes, in short, Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge. The idea of taking an autobiography and turning it into a series of found-verse poems not only breaks with convention, it opens up an entire world of possibility when dealing with firsthand accounts from history. A triumphant tale of enslavement, education, and ultimate freedom, all true, all as you’ve never seen it before.
“I was born / in that part of Guinea, Africa, / that extends along the coast / from Senegal to Angola, / where the trade for slaves is carried on.” So begins the life of Olaudah Equiano . . . sort of. The man who would go on to write the autobiographical memoir, The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano most certainly wrote those words, but he wrote a lot more along the way as well. How are we to account for only some appearing in this work? Well, authors and educators Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge have found an eclectic way to bring old texts to life for young readers. The two took the man’s adventures, including everything from kidnapping to sailing to his multiple death-defying escapes, and turned his book into a found poem. Put another way, they’ve excised the portions that bog down the narrative, rendering the book into a sleek, smart title that any young adult could enjoy. Filled as well with additional explanatory passages that give weight and context to Olaudah’s world, the end result is a whole new way of looking at historical passages, and connecting them to the children of the 21st century.
By complete coincidence a week after I’d started reading this book, someone happened to donate to my library a pristine copy of The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano to my library. Not having a copy on hand, I was delighted to see it, and amazed by how thick the original source material was. I cannot even begin to fathom the amount of work it would take to look at a book that size and think to myself, “Okay. There’s a story in here, we just gotta pluck it out, sometimes piece by piece.” Happily, at the back of “Nearer My Freedom”, the authors reveal their methods in a section called, “Creating a Verse Version.” Here, the reader can see firsthand an original page from Olaudah’s book, and then which portions were taken for this adaptation. The authors write, “We crafted the poems solely from hsi words, molding them around poetic devices and forms.” Verse poetry in the form of novels isn’t new, of course. And found poems have been around for a long time to. Of course, normally when I think of “found poems” I think of newspaper blackout poetry and stuff like that. The notion of taking a book, a memoir even, from long ago and then systematically removing the outdated elements so that the book is boiled down to its most essential parts… I friggin’ love that idea. Full disclosure, I interviewed Lesley Younge, one of the authors of this book, back in September of 2022, to ask her where the idea behind this book had originated. She wrote me the following:
“Monica [Edinger] and the fourth grade team at The Dalton School introduced me to the story of Olaudah Equiano when I began working there as a new teacher. I had never heard of him before. At the time, they taught the Atlantic Slave Trade as part of a year long study on Immigration and Migration to America. They were using a book by Ann Cameron called The Kidnapped Prince, which is an elementary school level book about Equiano’s life from his kidnapping until he purchased his freedom. One of the projects in our classes was to take pages of that book and create found poems. The verses the students developed were extremely powerful and allowed us to have pretty in depth conversations about the experience of being enslaved and the role the slave trade played in shaping many parts of the world. Monica was working on her own book about a child on the Amistad, which was eventually published as Africa is My Home in 2013. After the success of that book, she came to me with the idea for a book about Olaudah Equiano, based on the found verse project we were doing at Dalton. I thought it was brilliant. We decided to write it for older children – young teens really – since there wasn’t yet an age appropriate version for them.”
That this book originated out of a school project makes it all the more interesting in my eyes. Of course, I can’t help but consider other ramifications of this for other students. What if schools regularly had students create found poems out of the primary sources they hand out? One kid gets the Gettysburg Address. Another the Bill of Rights. Another the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. And now they must read these intensely, find the parts that stand out, highlight what’s important. By doing this, you make the student do an intensive read they wouldn’t have been inclined to do otherwise. But to then turn around and perform such surgery on a book for an age group lacking in information on a specific person from a specific time? Makes a lot of sense to me anyway. And the fact that it’s a verse memoir will probably make it feel a lot more accessible to readers. When I encounter a verse novel for kids or teens, my first thought is always this: Does it justify the verse? Or are you simply trying to use less words to tell a story? To my mind, verse makes sense when it has a purpose. And writing a book that’s a poem based on an entire memoir? Yeah, I’d say that verse is justified and triply so.
Getting into the nitty gritty of Olaudah’s life itself, Younge and Edinger establish right from the start why this particular man carries with him such outsized importance. Put plainly, he changed hearts and minds. This was the guy who laid the groundwork for the anti-slavery movements that would follow. A predecessor to people like Frederick Douglass, he was one of the few to first put forth the idea that slavery was immoral at a time when this wasn’t a widely considered idea in America or Europe. Then the authors let him tell his own story, and I couldn’t help but notice that Olaudah Equiano does something with his own book that a LOT of children’s books are doing today. Go out and grab a picture book like Born on the Water or An American Story and what is the first thing that they do? While the book is about enslavement, it always starts off by showing what everyday life was in these African nations and tribes. Olaudah too establishes his life and culture prior to enslavement. So he pretty much invented that form of storytelling all the way back in the 1700s, giving his book, even without the found poem aspects, a particularly modern feel.
Of course, what doesn’t slot neatly into today’s books is the simple fact that Olaudah is a product of his times. Sometimes he’ll say something or justify something that doesn’t jive with our current views on his time period. That’s something the authors had to consider early on, and they came up with a pretty neat fix. After all, none of this exists without context. The authors are constantly filling the book with additional information that places everything within a distinct framework. For example, early on they bring up the fact that nations of the world that are rich today often are so because they built their economies on the slave trade. But in terms of Olaudah’s views, they’ll sometimes have to provide some explanation. For example, quite casually he’ll mention his own village’s “slaves” and the fact that they were a part of everyday life. Later, when he’s a free man, Olaudah will talk about transporting the enslaved himself, and even helping to set up plantations. Since the authors are able to pick and choose what they include in this book, why didn’t they cut those complicated portions out? They left them in because history, as much as we might prefer it to be otherwise, is a mess. It’s complicated and strange and rarely straightforward.
The solution that Edinger and Younge came up with to handle such sections is notable. First, they include interstitial sections that give context to what’s already been discussed by our narrator. Then, they’re able to inform readers about topics they might never have considered before. For example, where did the enslaved come from? Our books for kids always show a bunch of white enslavers sneaking into a village to grab people. The fact is, enslavement was a business and businesses, if they work, are run with efficiency. They note that while slavery was an ancient practice that had existed for a long time in different African nations, and that European traders usually waited “in coastal towns, on boats, and in slavery fortresses for captives to be brought to them from the interior lands,” the translatlantic slave trade changed everything. It changed the culture and the political landscapes of Africa as a whole. That’s a more complicated story than you’ll find in a children’s book. For a YA title, however, it’s something that needed to be mentioned.
Near the beginning of the book, Olaudah is recounting his early years and then he says, “Such is the imperfect memory sketch of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew breath.” I love that phrase “imperfect memory sketch”. The man lived a rich, full life, packed with near death experiences, and narrow escapes. The whole thing has so many adventures, in fact, that you could never make a full movie out of his life. I envision his story more as a full series on television, with many episodes along the way. Of course, before that happens it needs to be better known to the public, and books like Nearer My Freedom will definitely help to do just that. It’s a more sophisticated and complicated look at the history of slavery then I think a lot of young adults will have encountered before. Its applications in the classroom? Endless. Its importance? Impossible to summarize. A rich, inventive take on how to tell history, sincerely, honestly, and interestingly.
On shelves March 7th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Be sure to check out my interview with Lesley Younge about the book and its creation here.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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