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Searching for Sarah Rector

Searching for Sarah Rector
Written by Tonya Bolden

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN #9781419708466

Grades 5 and up

Book Review

Sometimes fact is more surprising (and relieving) than fiction. Coretta Scott King winner Tonya Bolden proves this and more in her gripping nonfiction picturebook, Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America. Beginning with a front-page news story about the possibility of her kidnapping, Bolden generates intrigue, invites speculation, and compiles little-known fragments of U.S. history that entice readers to assemble Sarah’s story. How did Sarah, at just eleven-years old, amass such a fortune? Therein lies the brilliance of this biography. As readers attempt to reconstruct the events and circumstances surrounding Sarah’s fortune and whereabouts, Bolden takes readers on her own journey to piece together what happened and why so that the book is both a historical mystery and an exercise in author’s craft. Bolden rouses our curiosity in a number of clever ways, including turning master narratives about slavery upside-down, dropping red herrings and taking fascinating detours with the narration, and reminding us throughout that she was writing, she too was “searching for Sarah Rector” in the shards of primary sources available. Share this book with your students, as it will fascinate them on multiple levels: as readers, as writers, and as history detectives.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Creek Nation. Bolden begins her mystery about possible betrayal and broken promises affecting Sarah with another story of betrayal and broken promises—those associated with the formation of Creek Nation. Encourage students to learn more about the Muscogee (Creek) people by reading the digital resources listed below, as well as any print references. You may want to divide the class into small groups that study different aspects of Creek Nation and then share their findings with the rest of the class.

A Fuller Picture of Slaveowners. The master narrative of slavery is one about Whites owning Black slaves, but Bolden opens this book by focusing on the slaves owned by Creek Indians in the US. What other populations were slaveholders and slaveowners in the US? Across the world? Since it’s clear there wasn’t a single blanket explanation as to why people engaged in slavery, why did each of those slaveowner populations do so? What is the history of that relationship? In small groups, have students explore these questions in a multimedia research project.
Oil Industry. The circumstances surrounding Sarah’s fortune and guardianship became convoluted and confusing in large part due to the juggernaut that is the oil industry. Have students read about and watch the videos about the oil industry on and, as well as read some of the books listed below in Further Explorations, to learn more about the forces that empower it. Then, have them create two lists: one of all the ways the oil industry has impacted society, science and technology, and the environment throughout history, and one of all the ways the industry continues to impact those three realms today. For example, your class might compare and contrast the controversies around fracking with past methods of obtaining oil from the ground. How are those lists similar and different? How might Sarah’s experience and fortune be different if the discovery of oil on her land happened in present times?
Author’s Craft. Tonya Bolden could have told Sarah’s story in a straightforward, chronological manner, but she chose to start with a sensational, if not shoddy, piece of journalism published when Sarah was 12-years old. How does that decision influence a reader’s experience of the book? How different might a reader’s introduction to and interest in Sarah’s story be had Bolden told it as a traditional, chronological biography? After discussing these questions with your class, have them plot the events of Sarah’s life and those surrounding the management of her wealth on a timeline. Then, help students brainstorm different ways an author might shape or approach Sarah’s story to entice readers in different ways. Encourage them to try a few of those approaches as well.
Tonya Bolden’s Process: Piecing Together Primary Sources.Bolden admits that it wasn’t easy to piece together Sarah’s story, since few archival materials exist that document what happened to her and her wealth. How did she begin the process? Where did she go from there? Read several of Bolden’s picture book biographies, such as Emancipation Proclamation, Maritcha, and George Washington Carver, paying special attention to notes that Bolden includes throughout the book, especially in the appendices of the book, about synthesizing primary sources to construct an evidence-based story. Visit the National Museum of American History’s website or any other online source of primary source documents. Have students determine a historical event or person that they want to study further and work through the primary source documents available there to piece together a story of what might have happened.
Child Wealth. One of the compelling aspects of Sarah’s story is that she was a child who was wealthy, not a child with a wealthy family. Today, we can point to several similar examples of child wealth, especially among celebrities. What are the concerns surrounding Sarah’s wealth that continue to be issues today? How do you think a child’s wealth should be managed? In small groups or individually, have students research examples across history, perhaps from Sarah’s time to the present. After whole-class discussions about their research, invite students to debate or write persuasive essays about the pros and cons of different ways to manage a child’s wealth.
Grades 7 and up
History Detectives. One of the most remarkable facets of this book is the way in which author Tonya Bolden shares with readers her process of investigating and researching information about Sarah Rector. Have students identify those parts of the narration where Bolden does this. Then watch an episode or two of PBS’s program History Detectives or History Detectives: Special Investigations (available online on the PBS website). Have students compare and contrast the detectives’ process with Bolden’s. Then, challenge your students to write and illustrate a nonfiction picturebook biography about the episode’s topic, using Searching for Sarah Rector as a mentor text. Alternately, you could try one of the PBS lesson plans found here to help students engage in the process of thinking and researching like a history detective themselves.
Critical Literacy
Whose History Gets Documented? As mentioned throughout the book and this blog entry, there wasn’t much information about Sarah Rector to be found in official historical records. What is also not widely known is that some Creek Indians owned slaves. Why do you think that was? Whose stories and histories do people tend to hear repeatedly, and whose repeatedly get left out? How does a book like Searching for Sarah Rector attempt to give voice to those missing histories? What other authors and books attempt to do the same thing? Have your students search through your classroom, school, and local library to find out what resources are there that also address the voices and perspectives that Tonya Bolden tries to spotlight in her book. If your students don’t find many, have them brainstorm, inquire, and pursue ways to gain access to those resources and share them with others.

Further Explorations 

Online resources 

Tonya Bolden’s website

Websites about Sarah Rector

Websites about researching Sarah Rector

Interviews with Tonya Bolden

Websites about Creek Indians

Websites about the Oil Industry


Bolden, T. (2005). Maritcha: A nineteenth-century American girl. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Bolden, T. (2008). George Washington Carver. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Bolden, T. (2013). Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the dawn of liberty. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Marrin, A. (2013). Black gold: The story of oil in our lives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jarnow, J. (2004). Oil, steel, and railroads: America’s big businesses in the late 1800s. Rosen.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.