In the quiet darkness, a slave leads a group of “customers” through an amazing cave, and when they write their names on the walls by the light of his lantern, he teaches himself to read.
This is the story line in author Heather Henson’s quiet new picture book, Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop, Slave Explorer. In the book, Stephen is purchased as a young boy and ordered by his owner to “learn the ways of the cave well enough to lead paying folks around in the deep.” Stephen does just that. And he also does other amazing things: For example, he is “the first to lay eyes upon those eyeless fish” and “those craw dads white as bone,” both found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave. He is also the “first to cross what even learned men have deemed un-crossable” (The “Bottomless Pit”). Yes, Stephen is a discoverer…though like most slaves, he doesn’t go down in history that way.
In Ms. Henson’s Author’s Note, she admits to knowing very little about Stephen Bishop’s life, yet she still manages to breathe beauty and nobility into Stephen’s personality. Her simple, straightforward prose loans a soft-spoken flavor to Stephen’s words, and a courage and resolve to his deeds.
Through Ms. Henson’s prose, readers understand that, slave though he was, Stephen attained a type of freedom in those caves. Readers will share his pride in the fact that he alone held his lantern high and led adventurers through the damp, dangerous, and patchy darkness–and then back again to safety.
Artist Bryan Collier delivers with poignant illustrations of sad, soulful eyes and quiet strength; of courage in the shady depths of the Mammoth Cave. In fact, it is easy to see that Mr. Collier somehow tapped into Stephen Bishop’s quiet courage and resolve and brought it to the canvas. Thanks for these lovely illustrations, Mr. Collier!
Two small quibbles:
First, at the beginning of the book, Stephen says “I am famous far and wide–across the great ocean itself. Why, even the Queen of England knows who I am, they say.” Yet nowhere else in the prose or even in the Author’s Note is it ever explained how the Queen of England knew Stephen. The Queen is never mentioned again…which may be a bit of a let-down for history buffs.
Second, it was a surprise to read in the Author’s Note that “Stephen remained a slave almost to the very end of his life,” which is an indication that he was freed sometime before he died. This is confusing, because in the prose, Stephen says, “In time, my master says we [Stephen and his wife and child] shall be free, us three. But time is not always a friend. Time does not wait for us.” Then on the very next page, Stephen says, “No history book can tell exactly how I died…” This may lead readers to believe that Stephen was told he would be free but he died before this could happen.
IN ANY EVENT, Ms. Henson’s piercing prose and Mr. Colliers hauntingly beautiful illustrations are enough to overshadow such small details. Use this book as a supplemental lesson on African American History, early American occupations, cave discoveries and the like.
Best wishes and happy reading,