Lift Your Light a Little Higher is a brief biography of Stephen Bishop. It was written by Heather Henson, and illustrated by Bryan Collier (who is one of my favorite illustrators). There’s just enough information in the story to make you want to know more. The Henson’s and Collier’s notes in the back tell you a little more, but not enough. I searched online, and finally accepted that there just isn’t nearly enough known about this fascinating man.

The book tells his story as a first-person narrative. And he explains why there’s so little known about him. He says he’s famous, so famous that even the Queen of England knows who he is. But, “famous or not, you will not find my story written down exactly as it happened. Because, in 1840, in most states in this young nation, it is against the law to teach me to read and write.”

Stephen Bishop was a slave. And he was famous.

The History of Mammoth Cave and Stephen Bishop

In the early 1800s, Collier explains, the area around Mammoth Cave was the site of a nitre mine. Nitre was used in the production of saltpeter for gunpowder. But when the War of 1812 was over, and the demand for gunpowder dried up, the owners of Mammoth Cave needed another source of income.

They decided to make the cave a tourist attraction. Financially, it was a good decision. People came from all over the world to see the cave. They still do.

Stephen Bishop’s Life

Stephen Bishop was born a slave in 1821.

In 1838, the man who owned both the cave and the slave, Franklin Gorin, assigned Bishop the task of exploring the cave and developing tours for the people who paid to see the cave. Besides exploring, Bishop also served as one of the tour guides (all of whom were slaves).

Bishop was curious and smart. He not only charted paths through the cave, he noted the things he saw. He discovered many of the animals unique to Mammoth cave, they eyeless fish and white crawdads and such. He was the first to cross over the Bottomless Pit. He named many of the features of the cave, and his names are still used.

In 1839, John Croghan bought the cave, and all the slaves associated with it. Bishop continued working as an explorer and guide.

In 1842, Bishop created a map of the cave, from memory. Two years later, that map was published in a book. You can see the map in the back of Lift Your Light a Little Higher. Stephen Bishop’s name is on the map in large letters. He was given full credit for his work.

When Croghan wrote his will, he said that Bishop and his family would be freed seven years after his death. So, in 1856, Bishop was freed. He bought a plot of land for himself and his family, but he didn’t live long in freedom. He died (probably from tuberculosis) in 1857 and was buried in a cemetery on a hill above the cave.

The Voice of Stephen Bishop, Guide

Now that you know the story of Stephen Bishop, do you need to read Lift Your Light a Little Higher?

Yes. Yes, you do.

Stephen Bishop’s voice was silenced by slavery and centuries. Heather Henson gives him a voice, and you need to hear it.

Bishop’s voice in the story is personal. As you read the story, he’s talking directly to you. He hears you ask a question, and he repeats it back to you, pulling you into the conversation, making you part of the story.

It’s powerful.

And Henson uses Bishop’s voice to illuminate the past. When we start traveling with Bishop, “The year is 1840, give or take.” But as we take the winding paths with him, we go further into the past, where we can see “what’s never been lit, not since the dawn of time, at least, the beginning of every thing.”

And then, although Bishop doesn’t know it, Henson takes us to Memphis, in the year 1968. The sanitation worker’s strike. Men walking past National Guard troops with fixed bayonets. Men carrying signs that said, “I am a man.”

And Bishop says, “Down here, I am Guide, a man able to walk before other men, not behind; a man able to school even the brightest scholar; a man able to bring a crowd of folks deep into the belly of the earth and back again, safe and sound. A man – down here, that’s what I am – a man, not just a slave.”

Illustrations

Collier’s water color and collage illustrations are gorgeous.

Of course they are. When Collier’s first book came out in 2000, he won the Jack Ezra Keats New Illustrator award and the Coretta Scott King award. Since then, he’s won five more King awards, and he’s taken Caldecott honors four times.

Collier starts his work on a book by finding people willing to act out the story for him, while he takes photos. In this case, the drama students at Marlboro High School, Marlboro, New York, were his performers and reference models.

In Collier’s hands, Lift Your Light a Little Higher takes on the colors of the earth, warm browns and soft greens.

And Bishop himself, as Collier draws him, is a man of dignity and courage.

Using Lift Your Light a Little Higher

This book is a joy to read, and you should read it for no reason other than the fact that it exists. But if you’re a teacher – elementary school, high school, it doesn’t matter – you should not only read this book, but you should find ways to use it in your classroom. If you’re home schooling, it would make a fantastic base for topic-based learning, integrated across ages and across subjects

If you’re teaching literature, Lift Your Light a Little Higher is a great book for talking about biography and historical fiction. Where is the line, and which side does this book fall on? Henson has Bishop say, at the end, “sometimes you just got to lift your light a little higher: sometimes you just got to go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold.” What is she telling you there about her book?

If you’re teaching history, there is so much here! Slavery, of course, and the different ways slaves could become free. Why slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read. How history is made, and what it means that our historical narratives include so little about people like Stephen Bishop, and even less about the people whose artifacts he found in the cave.

You can use this book when you’re teaching biology (those cave creatures!), cartography (can you create a map like Stephen Bishop did?), geology (how caves form), and so much more.

There’s just so much in this book. And it’s beautiful.

Read More

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni: A Review: This remarkable biography of Rosa Parks is illustrated by Bryan Collier.

The Buffalo Soldier: A Review: This book tells the history of African American soldiers through the life of a single man.

Picture Books Are for Grownups, Too: Here are eight reasons you should read picture books, no matter your age.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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