Author: Arisa White and Laura Atkins Illustrator: Laura Freeman Publisher: Heyday Age Range: 10 and up
I am both thrilled and honored to review this week’s book selection, Biddy Mason Speaks Up. Part of the Fighting for Justice series spear-headed by Atkins for Heyday Books, she and White have a shining achievement in capturing the trials and triumphs of one of California’s first civil rights activist, Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
The story starts with Biddy as a young girl foraging through the woods with Granny Ellen; the woman who has become a mother figure since Biddy was sold into slavery and away from her mother as a baby. Granny Ellen is teaching Biddy about herbs, a skill that will become of much use to Biddy throughout her life.
"Even though Granny isn't allowed to read or write, she knows how to read plants."
It is this knowledge of medicinal plants and midwifery that is the beginning stages of Biddy understanding the importance of helping people; even when you don’t have much yourself. She further learns about community when her master forces her and her girls to walk from Mississippi to Great Salt Lake, Utah, and then to San Bernadino, California. Unlike the most of the country at this time, California had been declared a free state. It's here she would meet a freed black family, the Owens, who would orchestrate the freedom of Biddy and her two girls when her master tries to move them to Texas.
“There will be a trial. Robert Smith is accused of taking Biddy, Hannah, and their children by force from California.”
When her lawyer doesn’t appear for trial, Mason is given the rare opportunity to speak for herself in the judge’s chambers. It is through her own words that she and her family are granted freedom.
Mason would go on to become a powerful force in the development of the city of Los Angeles. Through her philanthropy, she would also become the richest woman – woman, not Black woman – in the city. All of these accomplishments would stem from this belief that Granny Ellen had taught her as a child:
“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” – Biddy Mason
This book is an incredible accomplishment for White and Atkins, which is evident in the pages that are thoughtfully filled with historical information, definitions and timelines relevant to both Mason’s life and injustices throughout the United States during her time. White also does an exemplary job of telling Mason’s story through rich and sobering prose – and responsibly touches on themes of sexual assault and violence against women. And Freeman's lush illustrations illuminate Biddy's warmth and bravery.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up is perfect for: The future activist The future medical practitioner The future philanthropist The future historian