When looking for materials to use in the Tea Time workshop, I discovered Two Friends through random Googling. The story by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko is about Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They were not only reformers but also friends who had tea together. In 2001, a statue called Let’s Have Tea was installed in Susan B. Anthony Square Park in Rochester, New York. This year the city is celebrating the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’s birth.
This book is a twist on the picture book biography, a staple in children’s lit. It’s a way to teach history in bite-sized pieces, often taking a small detail and building a story around it. Like many picture book biographies, it includes biographical sources, including historical photos and a bibliography, which includes Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. This book may be for kids, but its source material is the real deal.
Two Friends came out in 2016, so as you read, imagine you’re an elementary-aged child who is learning this slice of American history for the first time. You’re reading the words, but you’re also paying a lot of attention to the pictures.
Picture book biographies serve young readers by using the illustrations as a way to show, not tell, the research that went into the story. Within the illustrations are the actual words of Anthony and Douglass. They’re worked into the moon, into bloomers. They come out of Douglass’s and Anthony’s mouths as they give speeches, as if they’re on paper. The reformers actually stand on their own words. Words rise from their teacups: “Right is of no gender, is of no color. Truth is of no color,” and “We are all brethren.”
The text distills this period of American history into simple sentences for young readers. Both reformers are motivated by the same thing — “The right to live free. The right to vote.” — so that sentence is repeated for Anthony and Douglass. Anthony’s motivation is expressed this way: “Some people had rights, while others had none. Why shouldn’t she have them, too?” Douglass’s motivation is identical, except for one word: “Some people had rights, while others had none. Why shouldn’t he have them, too?
That’s what a man in a top hat with a moustache shouts at Anthony while she gives a speech. The book summarizes his complaint as, “Some people liked her ideas about rights for women. Others didn’t.” Similarly, when Douglass is giving a speech, a man in a different-colored top hat with a different-colored moustache appears to be seething. Again, his outrage is expressed as a simple refrain: “Some people liked his ideas about rights for African Americans. Others didn’t.”
Too often we think about history in chunks. It’s February, African-American History Month, so we’ll talk about Frederick Douglass. Susan B. Anthony will have to wait until the November 2020, when we recall that she was arrested for attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election. This book forced me to consider not only the overlap between the civil rights and women’s rights movements, but also how each inspired the other.
The author and illustrators have both worked on other historical books for children. Author Dean Robbins has written two other picture book biographies and has two more coming out — one in 2019 and one in 2020. He was a journalist before he turned to writing for children. When he went to Rochester to do research for this book and learned Anthony and Douglass met for tea, he described his reaction to that fact this way in an interview with International Literacy Association: “I’d felt similarly elated as a kid when I read comic books in which Batman and Superman teamed up as an invincible pair. It seemed too good to be true.”
Illustrators Alko and Qualls are a wife-and-husband team. Their first collaboration was in 2015 on The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage. Here’s a video featuring Qualls and his artistic process.
The key to Two Friends is the collaboration between Anthony and Douglass, expressed in these eight words: “Susan liked Frederick’s ideas, and he liked hers.” That’s why the two friends had tea, to learn more about each other’s ideas and the people behind them.
Tea is the beginning and ending of the book, providing bookends to the history lesson. Two friends, two candles, “two saucers, two cups, and two slices of cake.” The tea provides a cozy feeling, with snow outside, a crackling fire inside, and friends sipping from blue and white china cups, despite the upheaval in the middle of the story, as each reformer attempts to change the world: Anthony, with speeches; Douglass, with his newspaper.
It’s no secret I’m a tea-lover. I believe more conversations held while sipping this beverage would put more good in the world. But the story is not only about two reformers strategizing to change the world. It’s also about friendship.
“They would get right to work. As soon as they finished their tea.”
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, September 14. We’ll read Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It’s not a picture book — it’s a memoir told through poems. I’ll be discussing it more next Friday in a two-part series about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy.
Browse more Children’s Book Club
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro