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Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist

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Harriet Powers learned to sew and quilt as a young slave girl on a Georgia plantation. She lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and eventually owned a cotton farm with her family, all the while relying on her skills with the needle to clothe and feed her children.
Later she began making pictorial quilts, using each square to illustrate Bible stories and local legends. She exhibited her quilts at local cotton fairs, and though she never traveled outside of Georgia, her quilts are now priceless examples of African American folk art.
Barbara Herkert’s lyrical narrative and Vanessa Newton’s patchwork illustrations bring this important artist to life in a moving picture-book biography.

40 pages, Hardcover

First published February 1, 2015

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Barbara Herkert

6 books8 followers

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5 stars
69 (25%)
4 stars
131 (48%)
3 stars
60 (22%)
2 stars
7 (2%)
1 star
3 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews
Profile Image for Samantha.
4,985 reviews58 followers
November 10, 2015
A picture book bio about Harriet Powers who was born into slavery, but is remembered for her story quilts which now hang in art museums in Washington D.C. and Boston.

I like the way this book is formatted: text and artwork which often contained a seam-like border are pieced together as the fabric in Harriet's quilts were. Back matter consists of an author's note, a photo of Powers, bibliography, and explanations panel by panel of Harriet's story quilts.

Gouache and digital artwork.

Highly recommended for grades 3-5+.

Profile Image for Cheryl .
9,055 reviews392 followers
September 6, 2022
Fantastic for all families. The works of art, the two quilts that have been preserved, are printed on the endpapers, and the stories are in the back matter. It is a pity that it took a white woman to bring this story to us, but it's an important story and so, ok, however it gets told is fine. I, personally, adore the illustrations.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,509 reviews187 followers
July 3, 2020
Harriet Powers’ quilts were beautiful expressions of herself and the stories she knew.

Artwork: 5 stars. I love, absolutely LOVE Vanessa Newton’s illustrations!Gorgeous, vibrant, whimsical and full of life.

Story: The author’s writing felt slightly flat to me, and almost a little too nice when talking about the conditions Harriet lived in. I did, however, appreciate learning about a talented woman and artist. 3 stars.

3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
1,485 reviews279 followers
March 18, 2016
I feel quite conflicted by this book. I really like the topic, but am not quite sure it conveys enough about how hard times were for Harriet--both in her early life as a slave and later when she had to sell her beloved quilts. In the best case, this book could lead to interesting discussions with kids about the author's and artist's choices.
Profile Image for kate ♡.
466 reviews50 followers
April 22, 2021
amazing, beautiful historical picture book about the amazing harriet powers, who sewed amazing quilts telling stories. grew up a slave and freed at the end of the civil war. her quilts are displayed in two major museums! so, so cool!
such an incredible woman, and the book is so well done!
the illustrations are gorgeous.
highly recommend.
Profile Image for Linda .
3,660 reviews40 followers
September 9, 2022
Another newer story that is finally told, this time about a baby named Harriet Angeline Powers born to slavery, spending her baby days lying on a quilt while her mama worked in the cotton fields. The narrative tells her story while on each page there is further explanation in a brief paragraph. Can you imagine such a life taking care of a baby while working hard up and down those rows? Harriet grew up learning about textiles by watching slave women spin, dye, and weave so they could make textiles for the plantation.
When she grew older, Harriet helped stuff cotton filling into the quilts. The work was all done at night; days were for work in the fields. Harriet was freed after the Civil War. She married and she and her husband bought some land outside Atlanta. They were poor, and Harriet made extra money sewing. One year there was announced a cotton fair and Harriet decided to enter a quilt in the craft exhibit. She worked hours on that quilt, a “story quilt” which told Bible stories heard as a child. Eventually, through need, she sold it for five dollars to a Miss Smith. Fortunately, Miss Smith took notes from Harriet about the stories set in each part of the quilt. That quilt is now hanging in the National Museum of American History. A second quilt hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harriet is described as one whose “artistic vision was vast”, her style compared to the impressionists. She was never rich and lived most of her life in poverty. The inside covers show parts of these famous, gorgeous quilts.

But now we will remember Harriet Angeline Powers and her artistic gifts.
There is further information at the back, along with the one photo of Harriet ever taken, and the stories told in the quilts.
9 reviews1 follower
November 29, 2016
Sewing Stories is an amazing story of how Harriet Powers a child born into slavery watched and learned the trade of all the women on her plantation in Athens Georgia. It is an excellent example of how women and men of slavery would keep their stories and traditions alive through non-traditional modalities. Harriet learns to quilt through watching the older women, and eventually learns to preform the skill herself, and eventually creates masterpieces. After the the slaves were freed it describes how a woman fell in love with a quilt and the story that it told, and asked to buy it but Harriet felt it was apart of the family and loved it, although due to hard times she was forced to sell the priceless work, the woman who bought the quilt wrote the stories down, and it is now available for everyone to see at the Smithsonian! An amazing look at a not well known part of American History. It gives children the opportunity to experience another aspect of the life of a slave. It falls under the biography genre and would be appropriate for grades Pre-K through 3rd. It also includes snippets of Historical Facts that were occurring during this period of American History. I would use this book in my classroom to discuss how people have recorded history, and ways that we could use in our classroom to record stories or histories of families. This was a WOW book for because of the way it approached the subject matter, and brought light to such a dark time in American History. The other did an amazing job, and show how something positive could come from something so negative.
2,536 reviews32 followers
November 19, 2019
Harriet Powers was born into slavery, but her artistic skills were a natural talent. Her mother was one of several slave women that did seamstress work for their master. Yet, they were occasionally allowed to work on their own projects and held quilting bees. Their products were quilts that told detailed stories.
Harriet’s lifespan covered the American Civil War, which freed her and her husband from bondage. Better off than many when the war ended, they were able to buy a few acres of land and work for themselves rather than sharecrop. Through this time, Harriet continued her quilting and so impressed a woman named Jennie Smith that she eventually purchased one of her quilts and once it was seen by others, people at Atlanta University commissioned another quilt. In 1902, Atlanta University held a conference called “The Negro Artisan” and Harriet’s work may have helped inspired it.
Written at the level of the late middle school child, this is a book that tells a story of how artistic skill triumphed over adversity, even the power of slavery over people.
Profile Image for Kris Dersch.
2,324 reviews14 followers
March 18, 2019
I would put this in the based on a true story category rather than the picture book biography category because while the basic facts of her life are true there just isn't enough known about her to really do a full biography so a lot of this is based on a combination of the facts of her life and what is known about slavery in Georgia in this era. The back matter hints at this but I wish it was made more explicit.
I really like this story, I think it balances story arc and information well and since we don't know her story it feels all the more important to do. I do have some concerns about the illustrations of slavery. It's not a deal breaker and it's in illustration only not text, but there's a small hint of the "happy slave" feel here that is super unfortunate in what is otherwise a really good book. I'd still share it with kids and mine enjoyed it but I would be sure to point out that her life, both during and after slavery, was very hard.
Profile Image for Rachel.
127 reviews
March 16, 2022
I first learned about Harriet Powers from Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Invention of Wings. Being a quilter myself, I loved learning about Harriet and her story quilts. This book has really beautiful illustrations. Vanessa Brantley-Newton does such a good job in all her books! The writing, however, is a little flat and rosy like someone else pointed out. I appreciated the history but I do think it’s important to use more humanity affirming language. That means using the words “enslaved women” rather than “slave women” and “enslavers” rather than “slaveholders” and especially not using the term “master.” I also didn’t like the language used to describe how her future husband would “capture” Harriet under a quilt to “claim” a hug and a kiss. She’s a woman, not an object to be trapped and claimed as property. I’m torn. I want to love this book but I can’t give it all the stars.
For another really great book about story quilts, I recommend Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson
March 3, 2022
Excellent History Lesson, in story book fashion. Harriet Powers was a truly gifted women. Her quilts told stories, and her work was probably never monetarily valued like it should have been, still lives on to this day to be recognized and marveled at by all.

I loved the extra tidbit facts that were told on every page to go along with the story. It was what made the "story" come alive to me. I'm a history buff myself, so this was like the cherry on top of the sundae of a story for me.

This would be an excellent book during Black History month to showcase stories that involved slaves and slavery, but that doesn't get into some of the more harsher realities that they faced.

I thoroughly enjoyed Harriet Powers' story, and I think it's a book that many should get their hands on to read.
21 reviews
July 7, 2018
Babara Herkert has written a story that shows the life of Harriet Powers as she moved from a slave to an actual artist. Harriet was not just your "average" slave, and this book shows her drive and tenacity to preserve the stories handed down from generation to generation. This story is written as if it were a fictional character but to know that it was a non-fiction makes it even better. The illustrations were well done so the reader could tell what Harriet was doing and how important her life was to her. This story also helps to teach children that if you work hard enough you will be reward even if it is not right away. This picture book also outlined some of America's history and could be helpful to read for second, fourth and fifth grade curriculum's.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
56 reviews
February 17, 2019
Used for assignment 1

This book provides readers with an insight into the lives of African Americans during the time of slavery, and explains some of the roles they had at this time. Harriet was a skilled maker, who eventually began to quilt and create beautiful masterpieces. She began to sell her quilts to gain money during the hard times. The imagery on each page is representative of the artistic skill and unique appeal in the hand made quilts and designs.

This story is a good reflection that many ideas and materials can come together to make something beautiful. It would be useful in teaching students about the roles slaves, especially female slaves, had in the past and educating them about all the circumstances African Americans were faced with.
Profile Image for Aolund.
1,261 reviews9 followers
October 9, 2019
This picture book biography of the textile artist Harriet Powers, born into slavery in the 1830s, does an exceptional job of telling the story of Powers' life--from birth to death--without growing dull or wordy. The pacing is brisk, the language vivid and interesting, and realities of life for people who were enslaved is not skated over or elided. Additional notes, graphically rendered as scraps of fabric, offer up further factual/background information on each page, and can be read or skipped in a read-aloud context as appropriate to retain the interest of listeners. Appropriate for a school-aged audience.

Themes: Art/Artists, Black History, US History
150 reviews
March 3, 2020
This is an absolutely lovely book! It's very informative and walks the perfect line of having factual information while still being very engaging. This biographical story follows the life of Harriet Powers. Harriet was a remarkable woman who was born a slave, and over the course of her life became free and created quilts that are now in museums like the Smithsonian. In the back, there are photos of the two surviving quilts with descriptions of what each panel means, which is super cool to see. The illustrations throughout this book are SUPERB! This has to be one of the prettiest books I've ever read-- it's seriously a work of art!
Profile Image for The Reading Countess.
1,731 reviews56 followers
October 22, 2018
I'm not sure which I enjoyed more: the illustrations, the informational blurbs tacked onto the biography or the biography itself.

The actual quilts Harriet sewed at the end of the book, along with her explanations taken down by the women who bought them (the cost of the artwork is glossed over, which makes me wonder...was a fair price paid for them?) make this tale of long ago come alive for the reader.
75 reviews
March 14, 2019
This book made me want to see Harriet Power's quilts in person. The description at the end of the vibrant colors of the quilts, now faded with age, and the artistry made me glad that there was a book highlighting Harriet's life and work. I wonder if children will understand the sacrifice and hardship of the time, but I think they will. My 5 year old emphasized with her heavily being separated and giving up something beautiful that she created.
Profile Image for Marni.
506 reviews35 followers
March 8, 2018
Simple story about the life of Harriet Powers, a slave who was eventually freed and created beautiful quilts that are on display today in two prestigious museums. There are pictures of them in the back of the book, but now I want to look them up and learn more.

Take opportunities to grow even in the hard times.
Profile Image for Inge.
679 reviews54 followers
May 11, 2018
The off-to-the-side boxes provided lend some realism to the text, but the main text is very cheerful and the illustrations of the slaves are nearly always smiling. Really appreciated getting a good lock at Harriet Powers' quilting from the end pages, but find the depiction of slavery very much out of touch.
Profile Image for Evelyn.
222 reviews
March 31, 2018
This was a very interesting book about a woman and a craft that is so enveloped in the African American Community. Interesting tidbits on the side of pages to help readers understand the times in which African Americans lived.
Profile Image for Stacy.
20 reviews
February 25, 2019
A must-read!

The illustrations in this book are amazing. We love Vanessa’s use of collage and drawing to make the story come to life. We also like the captions that give background information about the history of the time. ~by Ms. Emerson’s third grade class
Profile Image for Karina Cortes.
456 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2023
What a beautiful story of Harriet Powers who learned how to quilt and would have stories in the quilt. On each page the book has a story as well as added information. Some words would be hard for a young reader. Beautiful artwork and I loved learning about another famous Harriet!
3 reviews4 followers
May 6, 2018
Great Read

Beautiful story of a woman with a hard life who made beautiful quilts. Would love to see the quilts someday
Profile Image for Jo Oehrlein.
6,254 reviews9 followers
November 6, 2020
The story of a woman born a slave who went on to create 2 beautiful applique story quilts in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Her 2 surviving quilts both are in the collections of major US museums.
Profile Image for Erica.
1,033 reviews25 followers
January 26, 2016
Given the recent controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington, illustrated by the same person as this book (Vanessa Brantley-Newton), I wonder why this book didn't also receive the exact same criticism?

In my observation, the slaves in these illustrations all look universally happy to be slaves, happy to be working, until the point in the book when they become free, and the stress immediately shows on their faces. How will they earn enough money to support themselves? Where will they live? Will there be enough food? A child reading this book, much more cued-in to the emotional content of the images than adult readers, will very likely receive the subliminal message that slavery was nothing but safe, comforting, peaceful, and happy - whereas freedom is dangerous, insecure, unstable, and unsettling, even if might occasionally be pleasant, as well. Doesn't that leave out too much?

Why hasn't this book provoked the same outrage in readers? Why hasn't the publisher, author, or illustrator apologized for it, like Sophie Blackall did after hearing the criticism leveled at A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat? I am not suggesting it be pulled from publication, recalled, or refunded like A Birthday Cake for George Washington, but I am wondering if perhaps the initial critical acclaim of A Fine Dessert lead to a broad reading of it, which brought it to the consciousness of critical minds, which then turned to the Birthday Cake book...

...but Sewing Stories, published after Fine Dessert, but before the controversy over Birthday Cake, slipped past people not yet woken up to the issue...and now needs to be looked at again, in my opinion.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Brittanny Handiboe.
46 reviews1 follower
December 18, 2015
During the time when African American slaves were forbidden to read or write, pictures were the key to recording the stories verbally told late into the night. Herbert takes the readers and listeners through the struggle of sewing out of slavery and into freedom with facts about Powers’ life and her importance as an artist in this picture book biography. The charmingly large amount of color, pattern, and digital collage in Brantley-Newton’s illustrations show the spirit of the patterned fabric, though in some instances the images are cut off by the edge of the page, making the page layouts seem slightly amatuer. There are small facts about Powers included within little fabric squares on each page that almost distract from the story itself, but despite these distractions, Powers’ life is lovingly told by Herbert. Most Love in All the World by Tonya Cherie Hegamin, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera is another book readers may be interested in. Cabrera has illustrated a few other books with a similar topic, such as Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Patricia C. McKissack. Herbert’s story is for ages 8 to 12.

Overall, I couldn't enjoy reading Herkert's work because I kept noticing things I despised about the illustrations. The anatomy was awful, and I might have been able to accept it if the digital collage wasn't also irritating to look at with stretched out patterns scanned in or pictures taken from the internet (or maybe photo?) I also didn't like that some of the parts of fabric weren't the same tone as some of the other pieces, either because of different lighting of photograph or bad scan, and everything about it was just distracting .
Profile Image for Barbara.
13k reviews269 followers
December 31, 2015
Although I was pleased to read a story about a woman who used what she had around her to make the world more beautiful, I wish there had been more to this account of Harriet Powers. This one tells Harriet's story while also including text boxes with factual information about life on the plantations. Born a slave in Georgia, Harriet learned how to sew from her mother and the other women on the plantation. Even after slaves were freed, times were tough, and Harriet put her sewing skills to work. When she exhibited a quilt she had made that told the Bible stories with which she was familiar as well as imaginative renderings of animals, a woman offered to buy it. Although she was reluctant to part with it, eventually she had to due to economic hardships. That quilt and the next one she made told unique stories and provided insight into historical events. Youngsters may be intrigued that these stunning quilts lasted long after their creator and are still on display in museums. The author captures the poignancy of her story and her attachment to those quilts and leaves readers thinking about the economic necessity of selling something that was so near and dear to her heart. Many of the illustrations, created with gouache, Corel Painer 11, and Photoshop have a playful nature to them, which sometimes seems to run counter to the nature of the story being told here. Although I like the colors used in the illustrations, I'm not fond of those facial expressions and large eyes. Still, perhaps that artistic approach makes the subject matter more palatable to a young audience.
Profile Image for Venus.
499 reviews4 followers
September 3, 2015
Review originally posted on Children's Atheneum

Born in 1837, Harriet Powers was born a slave. She grew up to be a revered folk artist.

For some, art recognition doesn't come until someone is older though. Or dead. In 1886, Harriet exhibited her quilts for the first time at a cotton far in Georgia. A woman from the Lucy Cobb Institute (a local girl's school), saw Harriet's beautiful quilt and asked to purchase but Harriet wouldn't be parted with it. The two women did stay in touch though and when Harriet fell on hard time, she ended up selling it to the woman for $5. Harriet explained how she used local legends, bible stories, and astronomical events to tell stories on her quilts. Today, only two of her quilts exist.

This wonderful picture book biography captures the story of Harriet in a way that is easily accessible to young readers. Using historical information and letters from Harriet Powers herself, we learn of her childhood, life as a slave, and how she learned to read and write. Another great picture book biography that lends itself well to the classroom.
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