Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Oldest Student

How Mary Walker Learned to Read

by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

illustrated by Oge Mora

The Oldest Student

How Mary Walker Learned to Read

by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
illustrated by Oge Mora

Review posted April 30, 2021.
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 36 pages.
Review written January 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I know a book is worth reviewing when I can’t resist telling my coworkers about it. This is an amazing true story, beautifully told in a picture book.

Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848. Of course slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read. She was freed when she was fifteen years old, but there was still hard work in her life. Now she was too busy to learn to read. She was given a Bible and planned to learn to read some day, but at the time she had work to do.

This picture book shows her busy life bringing up children, working in people’s homes, and raising money for her church. She’d bring her Bible to church, but she still couldn’t read it.

Mary had her three sons to read to her. But they died before she did. Her eldest son died when he was ninety-four, and Mary was alone at 114 years old.

So Mary learned to read.

She went to a class in her building, and at 116 years old received a certificate that she could read. The US Department of Education heard about her and declared her the nation’s oldest student.

Mary felt complete. She still missed her sons, but whenever she was lonely, she read from her Bible or looked out her window and read the words in the street below.

From then on, Chattanoogans honored Mary’s achievement with yearly birthday parties. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent well wishes on Mary’s 118th birthday, and in 1969, President Richard Nixon did the same. Mary was now 121 years old.

I love the way the book finishes, with an illustration of a friendly crowd clustered around Mary:

Each year, before her birthday celebration came to an end, someone would whisper, “Let’s listen to Miss Mary.”

The shuffling and movement would fade away until not a sound was heard.

Then Mary would stand on her old, old legs, clear her old, old throat, and read from her Bible or her schoolbook in a voice that was clear and strong.

When she finished, she would gently close her book and say,

“You’re never too old to learn.”

The endpapers show photos of Mary after she’d learned to read. The whole book is full of the wonderful Oge Mora’s joyful cut-paper illustrations. I’m amazed at how she conveys so much personality with simple shapes.

This book is a delight. There’s even a picture of Mary’s first airplane ride. A whole lot changed during her lifetime! And the message is clear: You’re never too old to learn.