Dave the Potter:
Artist, Poet, Slave
written by Laban Carrick Hill
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Laban Carrick Hill's Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.

Ages 4-8

Book about an enslaved, artistic genius

Dave the Potter is the story of a rare occurrence. The story of a slave whose job was to make clay pots. A slave whose heart, soul and skill led him to make magnificent pots, works of art.

Dave the Potter - summary

Dave was an artist who, like many great sculptors, saw the future form in a lump of clay—this biblical reference is one of the many possible trajectories adults might take in reading this book. Kids will likely be taken by the close-ups of Dave’s face and hands as we see HOW he transforms the dirt of the South Carolina land where he is a slave, into pots. Some are larger than most any potter could throw. Many of them he later adorned with another rarity, words. Poetry.

Only fragments remain to show us his artistry.

   put every bit all between
   surely this Jar will hold 14

   --July 12, 1834

Words. Written by a slave in the 1800’s when merely teaching a slave to read or write was a punishable offense. Dave the Potter is a good jumping off place to talk about slavery with kids 4-8 years old. And while Hill tells us the story about Dave as a slave and shows him making a pot from start to finish, Bryan Collier gives us many striking images of slavery in the background.

Slaves work the fields, a pair of shackles hang off a wall. Women and men stoop to plant cotton, and a boat, perhaps of the Middle Passage, sails a dark sea. Look for a background image hidden in the siding of a barn’s exterior. Collier has surreptitiously painted LIVE LIFE in big block letters that blend into the barn’s colors.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave - review

One of Dave's pots, along with one of his poems

Collage seems to be the medium of the moment. So much recent illustration for children’s literature pulls heavily from, and extends, the collage tradition. Here it works well to fill in the narrative of where Dave lived, how and what most slaves did (the literal background story to his life) and what he might be feeling or thinking. Two of my favorite images and text come together to vivify this idea.

   As the wheel spun
   round and round,
   the walls of the jar
   rose up like a robin’s
   puffed breast—
   but only so far
   before its immense weight
   threatened collapse.

The picture shows a close-up of Dave’s face seemingly looking through the edges of the jar. To me, he has a far away look on his face. While young children can see the pot spinning, or the intensity of Dave’s look, as an adult I see in the picture and hear in the words, the weight of slavery and how it threatened to collapse Dave’s world. Being a potter might have been his one joy or salvation.

On the next page,

   the jar grew so large
   Dave could no longer
   wrap his strong arms around it.
   If he climbed into the jar
   and curled into a ball,
   he would have been embraced.

This is one of the most curious and startling leaps of imagination on Hill’s part. On the one hand he is telling us how big a pot Dave is making…one that could contain a grown man? but he is also saying the pot is bigger than he is. Here, the illustration shows us Dave with his eyes closed, arms outstretched (a Christ-like figure) with the trunk and horizontal branches of a tree behind him. Inside the tree’s branches are the faces of possible family members or others who came before him or whose life he is connected to. The tree of memory, the tree of Life. It is a powerful image.

One of Dave’s remaining pots reinforces this idea:

I wonder where is all my relation
friendship to all—and, every nation

--August 16, 1857

The end of the book contains more facts about Dave’s life, more lines of poetry and both author and illustrator notes.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave is a deceptively simple approach to a complex and rich period in our nation’s history. This story adds richly to that complexity.

Webmaster's note: Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave won the 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as a Caldecott Honor.

Read more of Suzanne's reviews.

More picture books about black history.

More Caldecott reviews.

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