Thursday, July 14, 2016

Light in the Darkness    

By Lesa Cline-Ransome
Illustrations by James E. Ransome
Published: 2013

Awards:  Junior Library Guild selection, CCBC Choices  2014, 2014 Notable Children's Book in Language Arts 

Light in the Darkness is an outstanding example of a historical fiction to use in Writing Workshop in 4th grade and above.  Based on stories about slave ‘pit schools’  that author Lesa Cline-Ransome discovered while researching a book on Frederick Douglass, Cline-Ransome does an excellent job of developing an imagined, yet believable story set around this historical event.

Pit Schools were large, deep holes that were covered with brush and sticks to conceal the pit. Slaves of all ages would meet there at night basically to learn to read.  Cline-Ransome has an author's note at the end of the book explaining more.

The story is told in first person. This would be an exciting challenge for a student writer—to write a historical fiction in the first person. It would require the writer to have a deep understanding of the characters, time period and problems in the story.

Light in the Darkness would also be a great example of how to develop an interesting lead. The book begins with one word in quotations: “Rosa.”  The next words continue to set the scene as a secretive moment in the story.  It immediately draws the audience into the story—which what a writer wants.

Using Light in the Darkness as a historical fiction in Reading Workshop will deepen your students thinking about this particular historical time. According to Fountas and Pinnell's Genre Quick Guide, historical fiction requires readers to understand a certain time of history, the physical setting as well as understand characters in their culture. Students will be required to synthesize their understanding of the time period (slavery). Students might also be motivated to analyze the historical information during this time period and research deeper into pit schools. Students could also make connections to other texts they have read about this time period.

Illustrations by James E.Ransome are realistic, soft and make the reader feel like she is right there sitting among the characters in the pit school.  

Book Talk
Rosa is awakened in the middle of the night by her mother. They quietly leave the slave quarters and under the blanket of darkness, they travel for a long time to a secluded and hidden pit school.

Some favorite lines:
In the dark of our cabin I can’t see my mama, but I can feel her breath on my face in whispers.
“It’s time.”
I rise from my pallet on the floor and stumble. Mama holds my hand tight and pulls me close.
“Follow me,” she says, even softer.

They feel they need to learn to read because someday, if they become free, they would need to be able to read to survive in life. They discuss the excitement of learning from a slave who was taught to read by his Master’s wife, but they are also aware that they do this at a tremendous risk!  Masters do not like their slaves to be able to read. 

The pit school is a deep, large, hole covered with brush so that it is not detected by the patrollers that look for runaway slaves during the night.  Upon arriving in the area of the pit school, Rosa’s mother makes a bird call sound and the brush parts revealing a group of people-men, women, children-all slaves- down below in the pit shadowed by some low light.  Rosa and mother crawl down and their learning begins!  They stay most of the night, and begin to learn about letters and sounds.

Some more favorite lines:
“She calls out like a bird, then the bushes in front of us move to the side. We step forward and look down into a big hole in the ground. In the light of a lantern I see faces, young and old, looking up at us. As many as the fingers on my hands. Some of the faces I know and some I don’t.”

After a night of schooling, they make it back home and Rosa is sworn to secrecy. They continue to return to the pit school in the darkness of the night to continue their learning.

However, one night while many folks are in the pit learning, they hear horses stop very near the pit.  As the slaves listen to the patrollers conversations, they stand still not making a sound. The patrollers eventually leave, but the slaves are frightened. 

They decide not to have a school for a while—but Rosa is on the verge of putting all the letters and sounds together to read—and begs her mother to return.

They take the risk again and travel to the pit school in the middle of the night.  When they arrive, they are the only ones there with the teacher.  They again hear footsteps outside and fear that it is the patrollers. Then they hear the bird call and realize it is a large group of slaves that have arrived all wanting to learn.

Suggested Uses As a Mentor Text: 
Book Genre:  Historical Fiction
Reading Workshop Strategies: Making Connections, Synthesize, Analyze, Critique
Writing Workshop Genre and Strategies: Historical Fiction, Strong Leads, Elaboration, Inspiring Writers, We Need Diverse Books

Lesa Cline-Ransome’s website:

James E. Ransome’s website:

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