A New York Times Notable Book
A powerful historical picture book about the child of founding father Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings.
In an evocative first-person account accompanied by exquisite artwork, Winter and Widener tell the story of James Madison Hemings’s childhood at Monticello, and, in doing so, illuminate the many contradictions in Jefferson’s life and legacy. Though Jefferson lived in a mansion, Hemings and his siblings lived in a single room. While Jefferson doted on his white grandchildren, he never showed affection to his enslaved children. Though he kept the Hemings boys from hard field labor—instead sending them to work in the carpentry shop—Jefferson nevertheless listed the children in his “Farm Book” along with the sheep, hogs, and other property. Here is a profound and moving account of one family’s history, which is also America’s history.
An author's note includes more information about Hemings, Jefferson, and the author's research.
"This gentle, emotional book is a reminder that many presidents’ biographies have distressing aspects. . . . A simple but historically solid introduction to some of the moral crises slavery presented for our nation." --The New York Times
"Through a poignant first-person monologue, Winter imagines the peculiar upbring- ing of Virginia slave James Madison Hemings, son of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings.”—Bulletin, starred review
The creators of You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! bring poignant and personal dimension to the story of Thomas Jefferson's family with Sally Hemings through the fictionalized first-person perspective of one of their sons. A somber mix of historical details and plausible fictional particulars, the book was inspired by an 1873 newspaper interview with James Madison Hemings (1805 1877), in which he described his Monticello childhood and claimed his paternity. Alongside Hemings's candid narration, Widener's emotive acrylic art underscores his perception of his life's station: he's repeatedly pictured peering in from the outside, with Jefferson (who isn't identified until late in the story) shown at a distance. With bewilderment, Hemings observes the difference between Jefferson's loving relationship with his white grandchildren and the man's indifference to Hemings and his siblings who, though spared from field work and given violins, were taught carpentry rather than Latin ("This was our education"). A moving final scene reveals Hemings as a free man and accomplished carpenter who is still perplexed about how his father and master viewed him: "Perhaps he would be proud. I do not know." Ages 5 9. Author's agent: Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown.