Booklist Reviews

/*Starred Review*/ Gr. 4-7. From his 1968 Newbery Honor Book, To Be a Slave (1968), to Day of Tears (2005), Lester has brought the African American slavery experience to young readers. Complemented by Pinkney's powerful illustrations, this picture book presents an unflinching account of the brutal history and of personal courage, told with a lyrical magic realism that draws on slave legend and the dream of freedom. Lester begins with the horror of the plantation, where the workers must watch the white master whip a young runaway. The Old African, the slave Jaja, never speaks, but he has the spiritual power to enter the minds of other people, and he can take away the runaway's pain. He remembers the terrifying attacks on his Ibo people in Africa, the white traders, and the journey across the ocean, when he saw his wife stripped naked and then leap overboard. Now Jaja leads the plantations slaves back to the ocean, where they walk into the water to freedom and reunion. The stirring illustrations, glowing with color and swirling with action, beautifully depict the dramatic escape fantasy (which is based on legend), but they never deny the horror; they show the public whipping and the crowded ship's hold, so like the bunks in Auschwitz. The triumph over oppression is in the unforgettable words and pictures of individual people--and the connections between them. ((Reviewed July 2005)) Copyright 2005 Booklist Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews

In a historically based legend from Ybo Landing, Georgia, slaves "walked into the water, saying they were going to walk back to Africa." Pinkney's illustrations are superb; the book's strength lies in its specific, unblinking detail. This is an eloquent visual expression of the heroism of the suffering Africans who were ensnared onto those vicious ships. Author's and artist's notes. Copyright 2006 Horn Book Guide Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews

In a historically based legend from Ybo Landing, Georgia, slaves "walked into the water, saying they were going to walk back to Africa." Lester's narrative begins with the Old African, with mythic power, solacing a brutally whipped boy, then flashes back to his slave ship experience, graphically described. Finally, tall, black clouds resembling slave ships send down lightning "like whips of fire" (or divine retribution), consuming mansion and master and freeing slaves to escape seaward. Guided by penitent sharks, the Old African and his many companions are joined by loved ones lost on the Middle Passage, their bones re-clothed in flesh. Where the taut mystery of Virginia Hamilton's "The People Could Fly" derives its power from its mythic dimension, The Old African's strength lies in its specific, unblinking detail and Lester's signature informality of style. Pinkney's illustrations are superb: muted tones of worn fabric; impressionistic shadows among masses of heroic, striving bodies; resolute dramatic focus; harrowing grief; steadfast courage; quiet jubilation. Not since Tom Feelings's Middle Passage has there been such an eloquent visual expression of the heroism of the suffering Africans who were ensnared onto those vicious ships. Author's and artist's notes. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews

Whips sink into bare flesh and red blood glistens in Lester's painfully vivid, four-part story of the horrors of slavery that evolves into a fantastical escape myth. When a runaway boy named Paul is brutally beaten by Master Riley, his anguish triggers a flashback of the magical, shape-shifting Old African to the terror and stench of the slave ships he experienced ten years previous. Paul's vision-inspired cry "Water! Water!" stirs the Old African to lead the slaves off the plantation to the ocean, the Water-That-Stretched-Forever. Fully clothed, the slaves walk into the waves to their freedom, down onto the ocean floor, over the bones of fellow captured slaves, all the way back to Africa where their homecoming is joyful and triumphant. Both author and artist draw on a story originating with the Ybo slaves of coastal Georgia for this moving collaboration. Lester's prose is powerful and poetic, and Pinkney outdoes himself in hauntingly expressive, often wordless double-page paintings that masterfully capture the strength and suffering of the African people. (author's note, artist's note) (Illustrated fiction. 12+) Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Based on legend, this story by frequent collaborators Lester and Pinkney moves gracefully and affectingly from darkness into light. As the tale opens, a plantation master whips a young slave who has attempted to escape. Yet the slaves witnessing this do not see the blood glistening on the boy's back; instead they see in their minds a picture of water "as blue as freedom." This vision is provided by the Old African, once called Jaja, a wise slave with a unique power to speak to his fellow captives in their minds and "[pull] the pain from the channels of their souls as if it were a worm in the earth." The narrative then returns to the time of Jaja's capture from his African village and the Middle Passage (across the "Water-That-Stretched-Forever") to be sold into slavery. Like Tom Feelings's The Middle Passage , author and artist do not spare readers the horrors that occurred. Lester describes the stripping down of captives and liberties taken with the women; in wordless spreads, Pinkney shows Jaja chained to a man who was just fatally shot. On the journey, Jaja's wife throws herself overboard and his mentor is beaten to death. Back in the present, the Old African learns that his master wants him dead, and believes "it is time to go home." Two stunning wordless spreads depict the triumphant, uplifting finale, in which the sage leads the captives along the ocean floor to their homeland. By not shying away from the realities of these characters' daily life, Lester and Pinkney make their victory all the greater. Ages 9-up. (Sept.)

[Page 58]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

School Library Journal Reviews

Gr 3-6 -As the story opens, the Old African is watching a boy being whipped on a plantation in Georgia. He is putting a picture into the minds of his comrades-"a picture of water as soft and cool as a lullaby"-and the picture stops the boy's pain. The Old African doesn't speak-he hasn't since he was brought over on a slave ship-why should he when there is no one who would understand? As he cares for the boy, who had been whipped for running away, a hope sprouts in his mind-a way to return home-and he uses his powers to take his people on an incredible journey home. Lester's story is based on a legend about Ybo Landing, GA, where a group of slaves walked into the water, saying they were walking to Africa. His resulting novella-length allegory about spirit, memory, and freedom shows how hope can live in a people even when the spirit dies. Pinkney's characteristic mixed-media illustrations are uneven and not necessarily his best, but the numerous spreads are stunning, showing power in landscape and emotional energy in posture, and the series of three toward the end (the people entering the water, walking along the ocean floor, and emerging in Africa) completely redeem the entire book, capturing all of the literal vividness that the story suggests. Lester and Pinkney combine their talents here to create an unusual, complex, and thought-provoking offering in which the Old African is the keeper of a power that brings comfort and, ultimately, salvation to his people.-Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA

[Page 206]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Voice of Youth Advocates Reviews

In the ten years that the Old African had been a slave on Riley's plantation, no one had ever heard him utter a word. This Wise One of the Ibo people needed no speech, for he spoke to a person's mind, reading spirit and soul, causing death, or alleviating pain. With his ability to foretell the future, the Old African knew his master planned to kill him, ending the disturbing influence forever. It was time for the old man to take his people to the Water-That-Stretched-Forever, and from there, on a miraculous and mystical underwater journey back to their homeland in Africa This disturbing, exquisite book should become a resource for upper-level classes in American history and culture. In graphic and realistic language and heart-wrenching paintings, the book reveals the slave trade, the Middle Passage, and slave life in all their horror and despair, rendering the work most suitable for older audiences. A flawless marriage of Lester's poetic words and Pinkney's breathtaking artwork, this life-affirming story of faith, courage, and miracles is based on a legend and infused with magic realism. Like the Old African and his people, the reader must suspend disbelief and step into the icy ocean water on a strange and glorious journey, knowing that tears of joy await the end of the travail.-Jamie S. Hansen 5Q 3P S Copyright 2005 Voya Reviews.