Reviewed by: Rebecca Lehr
As Alex’s mother shops for a quilt in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, he sits outside and spots an old mule eating collard greens from a garden. An elderly woman, Miz Pettway, sits down next to him and begins to tell him why Belle, the mule, is allowed to eat all the collards she wants. Miz Pettway tells Alex how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the area in 1965 and encouraged residents to vote, and how Belle helped transport voters to the polls when law enforcement shut down the ferry. She recalls how after Dr. King’s death, Belle and another mule were chosen to pull his casket in his funeral procession in Atlanta. Alex realizes that “even an old mule can be a hero” and understands why Belle gets her fill of collard greens.
Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend has much for teachers to explore. It builds on what students have likely already learned about a familiar hero of the Civil Rights Movement, while teaching about the lesser-known victories of the “Benders” in the face of voter suppression and intimidation. Language arts teachers can capitalize on how the story conveys the strength of the Benders both through simile (“‘Benders are like ol’ Belle here — not fancy, but strong and steady…'”) and symbolism (as the mules pull the casket at the funeral, “‘They didn’t back down or get scared, just kept going.'”). To reinforce learning habits, teachers can point out how Alex makes connections to his social studies curriculum when Miz Pettway mentions Selma and Washington. There is also a brief reference to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, an entry point to many interesting topics, such as fine art versus craft and women as the backbone of an economy.
While the story includes some rather momentous events, the overall feeling is intimate and warm. It begins and ends with Belle snacking on collard greens, and animals and food make wonderful access points for kids. The browns and ochers of the illustrations add to the warmth, while a calming blue shadow links one drawing to the next. With this balance between small and big moments, Belle makes a great read-aloud at any level.
Rebecca Lehr teaches art in Spanish at Escuela Key, a two-way immersion public elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.
Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin A. Ramsey, Bettye Stroud
Published by Candlewick Press on 2011
Genres: African American, Civil Rights Movement
Reading Level: Grade K, Grades 1-2
Buy at Powell's Books
Also by this author: Ruth and the Green Book
Publisher's Synopsis: A true story inspires the moving tale of a mule that played a key role in the civil rights movement — and a young boy who sees history anew.
Sitting on a bench waiting for his mother, Alex spies a mule chomping on greens in someone's garden, and he can't help but ask about it. "Ol Belle?" says Miz Pettway next to him. "She can have all the collards she wants. She's earned it." And so begins the tale of a simple mule in Gee's Bend, Alabama, who played a singular part in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. When African-Americans in a poor community — inspired by a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — defied local authorities who were trying to stop them from registering to vote, many got around a long detour on mule-drawn wagons. Later, after Dr. King's assassination, two mules from Gee's Bend pulled the farm wagon bearing his casket through the streets of Atlanta. As Alex looks into the eyes of gentle Belle, he begins to understand a powerful time in history in a very personal way.