Children’s Book Review: *The Listeners* by Gloria Whelan


  • 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.

19 comments to Children’s Book Review: *The Listeners* by Gloria Whelan

  • I will definitely have to check this one out! Thanks for the great review!

  • Wow – this sounds like a really interesting children’s book. :)

    Thanks for stopping by and participating in Thingers last week! I’ve got the post up for this week in honor of Banned Books Week. ~ Wendi

  • I definitely want to read this with my daughter. Thanks for the review.

  • It sounds like a beautiful, and educational book. I guess the whole listening thing could have gone south. I’m glad the author kept it upbeat.

  • Julie – Do look at it; I’m very impressed with this entire line … they have a long shelf-life with kids’ age ranges.

    Wendi – a great way to learn some history, and the kids connect to the child 1st person narration.

    Tara – I learned from it (I knew about adult “listeners” who worked in the plantation house, but didn’t know about the children’s involvement), and it sparked great conversation w/my kids.

  • I just read another very good review of this book. (yes, this could mean either the review was very good, or the review thought the book was very good. both, as I recall) And I love that cover! Must find this!

  • Sounds like a great book to share. Thanks for the review.

  • I got tears in my eyes reading your review – the book sounds fantastic!

  • This book — and the whole series, really — sounds wonderful. Kind of wish I had a little one to read them to or with. The educator’s manual seems like a nice companion and a way to get into the time period.

  • I’ve read 2 books by Whelan and really liked them. This one sounds wonderful as well. May be another good one for my grandson, age 8.
    Thanks for sharing your review.

  • Thank you so much for the review. I always find the most interesting books to share with my son from your posts.

  • Sounds great! I saw another review of this and I definitely want to find a copy of it.

  • Sandy – yikes! I hadn’t even considered that the children would have heard something more negative (like, say, their father being sold!). I guess I am too much of a Pollyanna :)

    rhapsody – isn’t the field of cotton gorgeous? I use “good review” with misplaced modifier all the time; keep ‘em guessing (kidding!)

    carol – and I learned from it; that “old dog, new tricks” thing is true!

    Kathy – maybe I should put a Kleenex warning at the top of some reviews …

    Beth F. – I love every book I’ve seen from this press. Not like. Love! Beautiful illustrations, excellent text (whether it’s fiction or non), and “extras”

    booklogged – this is the first book by Whelan that I’ve read; I’ll be looking for others!

    ryan – I’m glad you and your son can get solid recommendations here :)

    Rebecca – it’s one that will stay on our shelves for a long time. I’m going to see if our town library has a copy; they’re very responsive to patron requests.

  • This sounds like a very interesting book with lots of good discussion about important topics. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m finishing up a book called Runt Farm: Under New Management by Amanda Lorenzo with my 8 year old. It’s an adventure about stray farm animals that form a family. The text challenges children to learn and use weird and wonderful words that they need to sound out but are all defined in the glossary.

  • I think I like your children’s book reviews the best. Hearing how it went over with your children helps me assess the reaction in my own grandchildren. This one sounds excellent even though it’s a tough subject I’d like our children to be aware of this history.

  • phenix hall

    wonderful. I’d love to see a book exploring the ‘cave-man’ days.

  • I have no idea how I missed this review! (Well, yeah, I guess I do…I’m hopelessly behind in online stuff. LOL)

    Anyway, great review! I’m glad your kids got a lot out of the book. I just read this one with The Girl (posted the review a few mins ago) and she learned a lot, too. I’ll definitely be checking out more of this author’s work!

  • [...] I can’t imagine a nicer book. And the illustrations are beautiful. Be sure to check the review at She’s Too Fond of Books, to see how Dawn’s young children reacted to this [...]

  • I responded at Jill’s and I want to be clear that I do appreciate teaching children about this period in history but I hope parents remember to also introduce children to t a broader image of African Americans and Black History or you risk them always associating our history with slavery. And that is no exaggeration; a parent told me her child said as much and I know black children who think of this month full of lessons they’ve heard a thousand times.

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