Cover image for The oldest student : how Mary Walker learned to read
The oldest student : how Mary Walker learned to read
Physical Description:
1 volume (unpaged) : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 29 cm

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Imagine learning to read at the age of 116! Discover the true story of Mary Walker, the nation's oldest student who did just that, in this picture book from a Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator and a rising star author.

In 1848, Mary Walker was born into slavery. At age 15, she was freed, and by age 20, she was married and had her first child. By age 68, she had worked numerous jobs, including cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and selling sandwiches to raise money for her church. At 114, she was the last remaining member of her family. And at 116, she learned to read. From Rita Lorraine Hubbard and rising star Oge More comes the inspirational story of Mary Walker, a woman whose long life spanned from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, and who--with perseverance and dedication--proved that you're never too old to learn.

Author Notes

Rita Lorraine Hubbard is the author of a number of nonfiction books for adults and runs the children's book review site Picture Book Depot. She is the author of Hammering for Freedom: The Story of William Lewis , which was awarded the New Voices Award by Lee & Low Books and has received three starred reviews. Ms. Hubbard lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can find her online at

Oge Mora is the author/illustrator of Thank You, Omu! which won a Caldecott Honor as well as the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award. It was also selected as a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Staff Pick and was chosen by both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal as a Best Book of 2018. Visit her at

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Mary Walker, born enslaved in 1848 Alabama, knew the first rule of her plantation ("Keep working!") and the second: "Slaves should not be taught to read or write." Emancipated at 15, Walker grew to adulthood and into old age, working and raising a family, but still the marks in the Bible she was given as a gift remained illegible. When she was 114 and had outlived her entire family, she entered a reading class, practiced writing until "pages and letters and words swirled in her head," and at last achieved her goal. Crisp, engaging collages by Mora tell Mary Walker's story in tapestrylike scenes whose planes of blues and greens convey the slow turning of years. In her early days, the signs and notices on the wall around Mary Walker appear as scribbles, but after she learns to read, they turn into words. Walker's determination and her long, long life--she died at 121--offer genuine inspiration. Ages 4--8. (Jan.)

Horn Book Review

As an enslaved child on an Alabama plantation, Mary Walker would look up at the birds soaring overhead and think: That must be what its like to be free. As a teen she was emancipated from slavery but still had to work hard all her life just to get by. At age 114, having outlived two husbands and three children, she decided to learn to read. The appended authors note says that very little is known about Walkers life during the intervening years (I chose to imaginedetails to fill in the blanks); the generally straightforward (and unsourced) text includes invented thoughts and dialogue (Im going to learn to read those words, she vowed). Pronounced the nations oldest student, Walker met presidents, flew in an airplane, and at long last felt complete. She died in 1969 at age 121. Moras vibrant mixed-media collages work in swirls of deep blues and greens. As Marys life unfurls, bird motifs appear, reiterating the freedom that she discovered when she learned to read. Words are embedded throughout, enriching each scene, and on the final page we see Walkers quote: Youre never too old to learn. Photos of this inspirational woman appear on the endpapers. Maija Meadows Hasegawa January/February 2020 p.105(c) Copyright 2020. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Mary Walker was born in the South eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation. She always contributed to the household, from her youth of enslavement to her time as a sharecropper. Mary longed to read, but marriage, child-rearing, and work kept her so busy that she couldn't fulfill her dream until she was a centenarian. When, at age 116, she was finally able to read her favorite book, the Bible, she was declared the oldest student in the nation. With simple, no-frills prose, Hubbard (Hammering to Freedom, 2018) recounts the story of this hardworking woman who lived through 26 U.S. presidents and experienced the end of slavery, as well as the civil rights movement. This is a work that points to small contributions of African Americans that have made a big impact. Caldecott Honor Book author-illustrator Mora's (Thank You, Omu!, 2018) cut-paper mixed-media style adds multiple layers to the narrative. The vibrant collage scenes feature flying birds (Mary always wanted to be as free as her winged friends) and squiggles on book pages that were indecipherable to her. Gradually, those squiggles morph into words, and readers will be as ecstatic as Mary when letters begin to appear, and the expressive faces and jewel-toned illustrations will inspire repeated readings. A lovely, inspirational picture-book biography about beating the odds and achieving your dreams.--Shelley M. Diaz Copyright 2019 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

PreS-Gr 3--Mary Walker, born into slavery in 1848 on an Alabama plantation and freed at the age of 15, was accustomed to hard work and survival. She always wanted to learn how to read, but obligations to husbands, children, and time-consuming work obstructed any opportunity. Although Walker yearned to understand the meaning of the passages in the Bible, "words would have to wait." Finally, when she was past the age of 90 and had outlived her husband and her three children, Walker signed up for a literacy class. It wasn't easy; Walker "memorized the sounds each letter made and practiced writing her name so many times that her fingers cramped." Walker conquered her illiteracy with practice and determination and enjoyed reading in the final five years of her life. Hubbard's direct prose is inspirational. The idea that "you're never too old to learn" is well executed. Mora's collage and acrylic illustrations, reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats, complement the text and add emotional weight to the story. VERDICT An absorbing narrative and excellent illustrations combine to create a moving story of encouragement for youngsters.--Margaret Nunes, Gwinnett County Public Library, GA

Kirkus Review

Mary Walker, who learned to read at the age of 116, is introduced to young readers in this lovingly illustrated picture book.Born into slavery in Alabama, Mary Walker was not allowed to learn to read. When the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery, she was 15. She was later gifted a Bible, which she couldn't read, but she kept it and made marks in it when her children were born. She worked hard and took care of her family and kept postponing her goal of learning to read. But she outlived her family, including a son who died at the age of 94. In 1963, she enrolled in a literacy program. "Could someone her age learn to read? She didn't know, but by God, she was going to try." By 1969 she had learned to read, been certified the nation's oldest student (twice), received the key to the city of Chattanooga, and had her birthday celebrated by the city to recognize her achievement. While the author's note mentions that some of the details that round out the text are invented, the most amazing facts of this story are the ones that are documented. Mary Walker was a living connection to a history people wanted to forget, and her indomitable spirit comes across beautifully in this book. Caldecott honoree Mora's (Thank You, Omu!, 2018) collages endear Walker to readers, each spread creating an intriguing scene of textures and layers. Enjoy this book with every child you know; let Mary Walker become a household name. (selected bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 5-9) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.