Book review: My Name Is James Madison Hemings, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Terry Widener

Winter, Jonah. My Name Is James Madison Hemings. Il. Terry Widener. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2016. $17.99. 40p. ISBN 9780385383424. Ages 7-9. P7Q10

winter-my-name-is-james-madison-hemingsA controversy about the Founding Fathers who created the U.S. Constitution is their ownership and other uses of slaves despite their claims for “freedom” and “democracy.” None of these men may be more famous than Thomas Jefferson who fathered several children with his slave, Sally Hemings, also a half-sister of his deceased wife. Winter addresses this part of history with his story about James Madison Hemings, son of Jefferson and Hemings. James has the dubious advantage of living and working in Jefferson’s house instead of being consigned to field work, but is still considered a slave with his name written in the “Farm Ledger.” Throughout the book, James looks back as his childhood at Monticello, Jefferson’s home and questions how he can be both son and slave of the man who owns the people and the land around him. The pastoral acrylics contrast with the darkness of Jefferson’s treatment of people with darker skin than his whiteness. A long author’s note explains that his book is “inspired by and partially based” on an 1873 interview with Hemings but explains that “there is limited documentation.” The Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data considers the book history, rather than “historical fiction.”

Fall 2016 review by Nel Ward.

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