Kamara goes to her grandmother's house sad and hurt by the words of a mean boy in her class...and her grandmother knows just what will help. She sends Kamara up to the guest room at the end of the hall on the second floor to clean one of the family heirlooms--an old mirror. And as Kamara starts to clean, she looks at her reflection and wonders if her grandmother is just being kind when she calls her beautiful....
And the mirror begins to show her girls and women from the past--taking her on a journey through history. She sees a captured girl being forced onto a slave ship, and then an older girl (the same one?) planning to escape for freedom. She sees a young teacher at the turn of the century saving her books and students from a school deliberately set on fire, and then she jumps twenty years on to a young poet in Harlem. The next picture shows a woman facing prejudice in the factories of WW II, but doing her part regardless, and then two scenes from the Civil Rights era. And finally, the mirror shows her something that warms her heart most of all--her own mother graduating from college, the first in the family to do so.
The strength and courage and beauty of these girls and women from the past fill Kamara's heart, and are balm to her spirit.
I can easily imagine this story being one that many young readers in Kamara's shoes today will also find heartening--Kamara's feelings and self-doubt might well mirror their own. Books like this can also be windows, that let kids look past their own spaces into other lives--and so it shouldn't be one that's just given to only to young readers who look like Kamara. Yes, it is a book with a Message, celebrating strong Black women and girls through history, and sometimes the message is stronger than the magic of the story, but it is written for young readers for whom the message might well be new, and it's one they deserve to hear. Yes, it is didactic in that points are underlined with a firm hand, but anyone who spends time with young kids knows that underlining is
That all being said, my favorite part of Kamara's story is the fact that her grandmother lives in a big, old house with shut-up rooms full of family history. Quick--how many books for elementary school readers have African American kids whose family homes are big old Victorian houses with glass doorknobs and so many rooms that some are never used? Yay for this story, for adding such a home to the places where readers can imagine kids of color. (And lots of bonus points for doorknobs, says I, because I really really appreciate authors who include details like this that ring so true to those of us wrestling with our own historic doors).
Continuing on this line of thought, I myself would have liked to have seen more unexpected scenes in the magic mirror than those it shows to Kamara--ones that challenge standard expectations. I would love to read the story of a family like this one, adding color to our mental images of the Victorians and pushing against the common default to stories of slavery.
But again, I'm not the intended audience, and the stories that Zetta Elliott tells here are important ones that all young readers, regardless of gender or ethnicity, need to make part of their mental storehouse of history.
(For time travel purists out there--this one counts as a timeslip because Kamara is not just a passive observer-the people she's seeing also see and acknowledge her).
disclaimer: review copy received from the author