Raven, Margot Theis. 2004. CIRCLE UNBROKEN. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 03743122893 [Suggested Grade Levels K – 2]
“Now you’ve asked me, child, how I come to sew. Well put yourself in Grandma’s arms and listen to a circle tale from long, long ago…” With these words, a young girl begins to learn about her African heritage as her grandmother teaches her how to weave the sweetgrass or Gullah basket. This is a charming story of love and heritage. With poetry and grace, the aged grandmother describes the different generations of the family, beginning with the “Old-timey grandfather” who learned to weave the baskets in Africa before being captured by slavers. She continues through the Civil War, the World Wars and finally to present day where she is passing on the knowledge to her granddaughter.
The text is lyrical and although it only rhymes sporadically, it still flows nicely. For example: “‘The basket starts here,’ they said/and taught his fingers to talk,/to make a knot first. A coil./A circle unbroken.” The watercolor illustrations reflect the mood of the text. When the people are happy and content, the colors are strong and bright. When things are not going well, such as when the slavers come, the colors are muted and dull. The illustrator uses many shades of greens and browns to depict life on the Sea Islands with one striking exception of a page almost entirely of blue when the Yankees come during the Civil War. A book designed for slightly older children, this can provide children with a taste of life in the Gullah culture of the south. Raven provides historical notes and a bibliography at the end. This is a cultural book to be enjoyed by all.
Children may want to discuss the importance of the baskets in the African cultures and how traditions are passed from one generation to the next. They can discuss traditions passed down within their own families.
Children can learn how to weave their own baskets using different kinds of materials such as paper or straw. Having an expert come in to demonstrate and teach them would be especially meaningful.
Other books about baskets and culture:
Belton, Sandra. BEAUTY, HER BASKET. ISBN 0688178219
Ray, Mary Lyn. A BASKET MOON. ISBN 0316735213
By Ellen Reed