About the Holiday
In 1966 UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture) established International Literacy Day on this date to “actively mobilize the international community to promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities, and societies.” This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected education and educational resources around the world. In response, this year’s initiative focuses on “‘literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond,’ and especially on the role of educators and changing pedagogies.” 2020 also ushers in a new five-year program: UNESCO Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy to develop policies and strategies to address the learning needs of disadvantaged groups, especially women and girls; to leverage digital technologies to expand access and improve outcomes; and to monitor and assess literacy programs. To learn more about today’s holiday and UNESCO’s global literacy programs, visit the United Nations International Literacy Day webpage.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read
Written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard | Illustrated by Oge Mora
As a child slave on an Alabama plantation, Mary Walker knew the rules: Keep working and no learning to read or write. But when she stopped for a moment to rest while “picking cotton, toting water to Papa and the other slaves who chopped wood for the train tracks, or helping Mama clean the Big House,” she watched the birds and dreamed of being free. In bed at night, she would think “When I’m free, I’ll go where I want and rest when I want. And I’ll learn to read too.”
When Mary was fifteen, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. While many freed slaves moved north, Mary and her family, like others, chose to stay in the South. With the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, they moved into a one-room cabin. To raise money, Mary worked long hours every day of the week without a break to eat, drink, or even use the outhouse. “At week’s end, she would offer Mama the one lonely quarter she had earned.” One day, Mary met an evangelist who gave her a Bible, telling her “Your civil rights are in these pages.”
Mary didn’t know what that meant. “She only knew that top to bottom, front to back, that book was filled with words”—words she vowed to learn…someday. But first came marriage, sharecropping, and a son. When a friend wrote his birth date in the Bible, all Mary could do was make a mark beside the words.
When Mary’s first husband died, she married again and had two more sons. To bring them up, Mary spent the next forty years sharecropping and doing odd jobs to help support her family. Eventually, the family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mary was sixty-eight and too old to farm, but she still cooked, cleaned, and cared for other people’s children to make money. She also cooked and sold food to support her church. On Sunday’s she listened to the preacher while clutching “her family Bible—the Bible she still couldn’t read.”
“When Mary was well past ninety,” her sons read to her and her husband. As time passed, her younger sons died and then her husband. Her oldest son died at the age of ninety-four, leaving Mary alone and living in a retirement home. As she looked out the window at the signs and billboards, “she sighed. All this time, she thought, and they still look like squiggles.”
When her retirement home offered a reading class, Mary joined in. At 114, “she was the oldest student in the class—and probably in the entire country.” For the next year and longer, she studied and wrote and memorized. She began recognizing sight words and putting them together into short sentences. All of Mary’s hard work came together, and at last at the age of 116, she could read! Mary’s story traveled across the country, and journalists came to interview her. A representative from the US Department of Education pronounced her “‘the world’s oldest student.’”
“Mary felt complete.” When she felt lonely, she read her Bible or the signs she could see from her window. In Chattanooga, Mary’s accomplishment was celebrated with annual birthday parties. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent her a letter when she turned 118 in 1969, and President Richard Nixon sent a card when she turned 121. Among all the gifts she received over those years, her favorite was a ride in small airplane that dipped and soared like the birds she had watched as a child. As she looked at the landscape below, “Mary decided that flying was a lot like reading: they both made a body feel as free as a bird.” Each year, to start her birthday celebration, Mary read to the people gathered and as she closed the book, she always said, “You’re never too old to learn.”
An Author’s Note that reveals more about Mary Walker’s life follows the text.
Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s moving portrait of Mary Walker and her resolve to learn to read even at an advanced age is inspirational for all. Hubbard’s straightforward storytelling focuses on Mary’s grueling work and the obstacles and responsibilities that delayed her education while also revealing her resilience, her generosity, and the strong bonds she shared with her family. Mary’s equating reading and education with freedom even as a child will resonate with today’s students and offers encouragement when lessons are difficult. With excellent pacing and a depth of details that will keep children riveted to this true story, Hubbard tells not only Mary’s history but that of many African-American families, making The Oldest Student a poignant book to share for reading, history, and social studies in classrooms as well as for home story times.
Oge Mora’s collage-style illustrations, incorporating strips of written text and musical scores, enrich Hubbard’s story with images of Mary working as a slave and later at various jobs always surrounded by words she cannot read. Later, as Mary gazes out of the window of her retirement home and passes fliers on the bulletin board there, the signs and papers are covered in squiggles, giving young readers an idea of how Mary sees the written world. After Mary learns to read, Mora replaces these with the actual signs, a clear example of the difference the ability to read makes. Mora’s early depictions of Mary, her head and back bowed by arduous, exhausting labor, are heartbreaking, making later images of her, head held high with pride and accomplishment, all the more emotional.
An uplifting and powerful lesson on perseverance and never giving up on a dream, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read is highly recommended for home bookshelves and a must for school and library collections.
Ages 4 – 8
Schwartz & Wade, 2020 | ISBN 978-1524768287
Discover more about Rita Lorraine Hubbard and her books, visit her website.
To learn more about Oge Mora, her books, and her art, visit her website.
International Literacy Day Activity
Book Love! Word Search
There are all kinds of books for every reader. Find your favorite genre along with nineteen others in this printable puzzle.
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