- The Listeners by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Mike Benny
- Reading level: Ages 6-10 (see notes on age range, below)
- Library Binding: 40 pages
- Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press (September 2009)
- ISBN-13: 978-1585364190
Back-of-the-book blurb: Ella May lives on a plantation but she doesn’t live in the great house. She is a slave. It’s dark in the morning when Ella May heads to the fields to pick cotton. And it’s sunset when she comes home. But her day isn’t done, not yet. Ella May still has important work to do. She’s got to listen.
Each night Ella May and her friends secretly listen outside the windows of their master’s house. The children listen in the hopes of gleaning information about their fates and those of their loved ones. Who will be sold? Who will stay?
The lives of slaves depended on the inclinations of their owners. They had no control over their daily lives or futures. But they could dream. And when the promise of freedom appears on the horizon, the children are the first to hear it.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: The Listeners presents a slice of history – showing how slave children were the carriers of information about the plantation and the nation at large in the days leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. Gloria Whelan uses a child’s voice to describe the daily routines; her words exemplify the writer’s maxim of “show, don’t tell” :
Listening is a job for us children. We make ourselves small as cotton seeds and quiet as shadows. … Sand flies bite us and mosquitoes stick pins in us but we don’t slap at them. We’re here to listen.
And listen they do. The children hear Master Thomas’ plans to teach Ella May’s father, William, how to maintain the cotton gin. Ella May listens with pride as she hears Master Thomas tell Mistress Louise that he won’t sell William because “he’s one of our best pickers, and handy with machines.” One evening Ella May hears the young mistress of the house recite a poem her tutor has taught her; Ella May memorizes it and feels “now it’s my poem, too.”
Another night the children hear the anger in Master Thomas’ voice as he loudly complains about the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln. Master Thomas shouts that Lincoln “is a madman! He says slavery is wrong! He says slavery must end!”
The adults listen raptly as the slave children relate what they’ve heard. Ella May understands that a big change is coming, and asks her father if she is done listening. Her father wisely replies:
We see the road, but we don’t see all the way to where the ending is. We got to know how long is that road and how we get down it. … your listening is just begun.
When I talked with my kids about the messages in the book, they offered several, both historical and personal:
- slaves were treated unfairly; they weren’t treated like people!
- children worked hard during the day and continued working at night when they listened
- their lives were hard, but they were able to find small moments of joy
- even when the end is in sight, you have to keep focused to get to your goal (don’t give up!)
A note about the audience age range for The Listeners: Publishers assign a suggested age range to children’s books, to aid you in selecting appropriate material. In this case, the reading level is listed as “ages 6-10,” which is a fair average, but may cut the spread too short. I read this aloud with my 5- and 7-year-olds; 11-year-old was listening, but not snuggling on the sofa with us (he picked up The Listeners and read it on his own, later). Mike Benny’s detailed illustrations, especially the intense facial expressions, convey the range of emotions shown by children and adults; emotions that children of all ages can relate to.
There’s a wonderful “Educator’s Guide” to The Listeners available online. It’s not just for teachers, though! Many of the themes, including a recipe for cornmeal dumplings, can be adapted for home use to extend the impact of the story (and without your kitchen feeling like a classroom). The Listeners is the latest book in Sleeping Bear Press’ “Tales of Young Americans” series. Other titles include Rudy Rides the Rails (Depression era), and The Junk Man’s Daughter (turn of the century immigration).
Highly recommended for home, school, and library.