Reviewed by Katie Seitz
Book Author: Mara RockliffWilliam Low
Me and Momma and Big John is a quietly excellent children’s book that deserves attention as one of the best of 2012. Told through the voice of her oldest son, the book charts the progress of St. John the Divine’s first woman of color stonecutter as she joins an apprenticeship program and cuts her first stone for the cathedral’s ongoing construction.
John’s mother returns from her first day of work exhausted and covered in stone dust. The long commute and hard work tire her out, but she loves her new job and the stone she’s shaping to become part of “Big John,” as they call the cathedral. John imagines his mother’s stone in a museum, alongside the art he saw on his school field trip. But when she takes her children to visit the stone yard and the cathedral, he is disappointed. The stone is plain, without ornament, bearing nothing that would mark it as his mother’s work. Inside the cathedral, his disappointment fades as he experiences the majesty of the structure and joins the voices of the choir. He sees the value of working together to create something beautiful and timeless.
Me and Momma and Big John tells a simple story without major conflict; a reader looking for drama and suspense should look elsewhere. Instead, the book shines for its portrayal of a happy family headed by a successful African American single mother. The narrator takes pride in his mother’s achievement, and one of the best illustrations shows her among her fellow stonecutters, standing proudly in front of the cathedral on which they and so many others have worked. The image captures another positive element of the book – that it allows her to be an enthusiastic artisan and worker without implicit judgment of her parenting.
William Low’s warm, light-filled illustrations are a perfect complement to Mara Rockliff’s pared-down text. The book is designed for early readers and would work well in a lesson on architecture or construction.
Me and Momma and Big John by Mara RockliffWilliam Low
Illustrator: William Low
Published by Candlewick Press on 2012
Reading Level: Early Childhood, Grade K
Review Source: Teaching for Change
Buy at Powell's Books
SYNOPSIS: Momma is a stonecutter at the cathedral called Big John — and little John and his sisters can't wait to see her special stone — in this luminous true-life story.
"Building a cathedral isn’t a job, it’s an art." Momma comes home from work, tired and sore from a long day at her job. She used to work on the factory line, but now an early bus takes her across the bridge into New York City. Momma is a stonecutter now, helping to build the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. She works all day on just one stone, and little John and his two sisters wonder how she does it. Finally, Momma’s stone is finished, and little John can’t wait to see it. But when he arrives at the cathedral, he’s confused. Where is Momma’s name? How will all the people know this is Momma’s art? This touching story from a child’s perspective, based on real events, lovingly shows the grace and dignity of having pride in one’s work — and in one’s Momma. Gorgeously illustrated with the illuminated artwork of William Low, the transcendent beauty of Saint John’s Cathedral radiates with warmth and light.