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Steamboat School: Inspired by a True Story

 St61bfpay1rjleamboat School: Inspired by  a True Story

Written by Deborah Hopkinson      Illustrated by Ron Husband

Published in 2016 by Disney-  Hyperion

Grades K-6

ISBN: 978-142312196-1

Book Review

“I always thought being brave was for grown-up heroes doing big, daring deeds. But Mama says that sometimes courage is just an ordinary boy like me doing a small thing, as small as picking up a pencil.” Inspired by the life of Revered John Berry Meachum, Steamboat School weaves historical events with elements of fiction to depict Meachum’s relentless fight for the rights of African Americans in the mid1800s in St. Louis, Missouri. When a state law against educating African Americans forces Meachum to close his “Tallow Candle School” in the basement of a church in 1847, he reopens it in a location that fell under federal, rather than state property—a steamboat in the Mississippi River. Steamboat School is told from the perspective of a fictional boy named James who gives readers insights into the excitement and fears associated with attending school down the basement steps in the windowless room and then aboard the steamboat. Characteristic of her large body of work, Deborah Hopkinson has created a narrative that allows readers to experience the pain, fear, and hope that James experiences. She further explains Reverend Meachum’s life as well as her research process in an informative author’s note. Ron Husband’s pen and ink illustrations use hues of brown and black punctuated by red and blue. His illustration style and use of color compel readers to linger on each page adding to the emotional pull that Hopkinson’s words create. Steamboat School is a heartrending book that will inspire readers of all ages to better understand the history of discrimination in the South leading up to the Civil War as well as the ways they can notice acts of bravery in their own lives.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Grades K-6 

School Stories: The Right to an Education. While today it is an American right for all young people to attend school, Steamboat School shows us that it was often dangerous, and even, illegal for children of color to attend school in this country. These dangers continue today in many parts of the world. Gather other books about people who have fought for the rights of young people to attend school (see Further Investigations) including Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter, Rain School by James Mumford, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiah, The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan Goodman, Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeanette Winter, Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya, and The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. After reading across several selections, support students to discuss why people advocate so fiercely for the right to an education. What are the things they love about their own school that they wish all young people around the world had access to? Consider creating a class mural or murals to depict the stories they read as well as what they value in their own school experience.

Picture Book Study. Gather other picture books by Deborah Hopkinson such as Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale which takes places during the same time period as Steamboat School and also includes Hopkinson’s commentary on “doing history”. Other picture books by Hopkinson include Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and its sequel Under the Quilt of Night as well as Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson and Sky Boys. Support students to notice trends in Hopkinson’s writing style such as her choice of historical topics, her use of word choice, and the ways in which she includes dialogue to make history more memorable and meaningful for readers. Have students compare and contrast the illustrator’s techniques in each book noticing the ways the verbal and visual work together to narrate each book. Consider creating a class anchor chart that will support students to create their own picture books by drawing from the writing and illustration techniques they have noted across Hopkinson’s mentor texts. Primary students could collaborate on the creation of a class picture book while upper elementary students could select individual or small group historical topics to research and depict through their own picture books.

Who’s Telling the Story: The Power of I. Steamboat School has an emotional pull partly thanks to the choice Deborah Hopkinson made as an author to tell the story using first person narration through the voice of James. Zoom in on the sentences in the book that begin with “I”. Then, support students to notice other books in their classroom library that are told in the first person with special attention to historical fiction books. Engage students in a discussion of the power of using “I” in writing particularly when writing fiction. Have students do a portfolio review of their work noticing the times they have used “I” as a writer. In what ways do they think it makes their writing stronger? Encourage students to then write their own narratives either from their own lives or to depict historical events by creating a fictional character using “I” to tell the story.

Acts of Bravery: Big and Small. On the first page we learn that James’ mom challenges his notions of bravery by telling him that sometimes courage is about the small things. Ask students to define what it means to be brave or courageous gathering student responses on an anchor chart. Encourage students to consider the times they have been brave in their own lives. Expand students’ understanding of bravery by sharing examples from your own life that include physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and moral courage. Start a class bravery jar where students can note acts of bravery other students have taken. These notes can be shared out at the end of the week throughout the year to continue conversations about bravery.

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How: Learning More About History. Hopkinson offers readers several suggestions for resources to explore more about Reverend John Berry Meachum, the Mississippi River, Mary Meachum and the Underground Railroad, and Civil Rights and Education. Using question words as a guide, invite students to think like historians by first asking questions about the events depicted in Steamboat School. What do they want to know more about after reading the book (i.e., Revered Meachum, the schools, discrimination and segregation, laws from the 1800s)? Where do they think they can find out more information to further their own learning? Next, visit some of the suggested websites and books recommended by Hopkinson and that are included below in Further Investigations. Support students to search for answers to their questions and to revise their questions based on their additional reading. Emphasize the importance of asking questions as historians even those that are unanswerable.


Grades 4-6

Historical Fiction Book Clubs. Gather historical fiction novels by Deborah Hopkinson including A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket and The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel. Support students in book clubs of her work noticing and naming moments in the text where history seems to come alive. Note the craft techniques Hopkinson uses as an author to engage readers and to inform them of history including first person narration, dialogue, thick description, figurative language, and a variety of sentence lengths. View her interview with Reading Rockets and visit her website to learn more about the impact she hopes her work has on readers. Support students to select historical events to research with the choice of writing a historical fiction picture book or short story to convey to readers historical details through a compelling narrative.

One Child, One Teacher, One Pen, One Book Text Set James explains that bravery can come from seemingly ordinary life moments like the decision to pick up a pencil. This is also a driving force in Andrea Davis Pinkney’s novel-in-verse, The Red Pencil. Support students to notice the passion for literacy that both books portray and the relationships between teachers and young people that inspire the protagonists to pick up their pens and pencils. Extend student learning by viewing or reading Malala Yousafzai’s speech from the Youth Takeover at the United Nations. In this speech she proclaims, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.” Ask students to discuss whether or not they think she is right. Can the power of literacy change the world?

Critical Literacy 

Becoming Text Critics: Whose History Counts? Deborah Hopkinson writes about historical figures and events that are not often part of standard social studies curriculum or textbooks. Gather other texts used in the school to teach about history including textbooks, primary sources, and even photographs inviting students to notice whose history is centered in each text and whose is left out. You can narrow the focus of this investigation by focusing on select topics related to Steamboat School or you can gather texts on a broad set of topics. Engage students as text critics to rank which texts they think serve them best as growing historians. Consider taking this process one step further to support students to write their opinions of texts in letters to publishers either thanking them for their portrayal of history or advocating that publishers revise their texts to more accurately represent diverse histories.

Literate Enslaved Africans/African Americans Text Set. In the author’s note of Steamboat School, Hopkinson explains how Reverend Meachum bought slaves in order to free them. He tirelessly advocated for the literacy lives of African Americans and enslaved Africans throughout his life. Discuss with students the ways in which the literacy lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans in the mid-19th century was considered dangerous. Gather other books including Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate about the first published black poet in the South as well as Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill to support students to better understand the ways in which literate African Americans and enslaved Africans represented a perceived threat.

Further Investigation

Online Resources

Author’s Site

Scholastic Biography of Deborah Hopkinson

Reading Rockets Interview

 Mississippi River Commission Brochure

University of Missouri Site on John Berry Meachum

Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Site from the Dred Scott Foundation

Malala Yousafzai’s United Nations Speech


Abouraya, K.L. (2014). Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with words. Great Neck, NY: Starwalk Kids Media.

Bridges, R. (1999). Through my eyes. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Coles, R. (2010). The story of Ruby Bridges. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Goodman, S. (2016). The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Hill, L. C. (2010). Dave the potter: Artist, poet, slave. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Hopkinson, D. (1999). A band of angels: A story inspired by the jubilee singers. New York, NY: Antheneum.

Hopkinson, D. (2016). A bandit’s tale: The muddled misadventures of a pickpocket. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Hopkinson, D. (2015). The great trouble: A mystery of London, the blue death, and a boy called Eel. New York, NY: Yearling.

Howard, E. F. (2005). Virgie goes to school with us boys. New York, NY: Aladdin.

Jurmain, S. (2005). The forbidden schoolhouse: The true and dramatic story of Prudence Crandall and her students. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Children.

Littlesugar, A. (2001). Freedom school, yes! New York, NY: Philomel.

McKissack, P. (2001). Goin’ someplace special. New York, NY: Atheneum.

Mumford, J. (2010). Rain school. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Paulsen, G. Nightjohn. New York, NY: Laurel Leaf.

Pinkney, A. D. (2014). The red pencil. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Tate, D. (2015). Poet: The remarkable story of George Moses Horton. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers.

Tonatiah, D. (2014). Separate is never equal: Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight for desegregation. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

Winter, J. (2009). Nasreen’s secret school. San Diego, CA: Beach Lane Books.

Winter, J. (2014). Malala: A brave girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A brave boy from Pakistan: Two stories of bravery. San Diego, CA: Beach Lane Books.



Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.