Poems of American Slavery
By Cynthia Grady. Illustrated by Michele Wood
Eerdmans. $17. Ages 10 and up
The role of quilts in slavery, particularly as signals in the Underground Railroad, is an ongoing debate in historical circles, but in the exceptional “I Lay My Stitches Down,” quilts become an affecting metaphor for the patchwork lives endured by American slaves. Using a structure of 10 lines of 10 syllables to reflect square patches of cloth, D.C. author Cynthia Grady presents 14 poems touching on aspects of slavery, including moments of peace, a terrible lashing and an escape attempt. Grady incorporates references to needlework into every poem: “I wait — then thread my way to freedomland”; “That overseer cut from the same cloth/as the devil hisself, the very warp/and weft.” Michele Wood’s vibrant paintings are likewise wrapped up in quilts, each one a gorgeous hodgepodge of images, colors and patterns. In one illustration, showing an escaped slave crossing a river, the blue-green night sky is made of squares and ornamented by the North Star and the moon; the water’s rings seem part of another quilt with a circular pattern embellished by small animals and lily pads. Throughout the book, the interplay between pictures and words, including the poems and succinct historical background, is deeply impressive, as seamless as it is stirring.