I’m proud to announce that this year’s Great Reads from Great Places title is “Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson” written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman. The picture book biography is a perfect selection to represent Pennsylvania. Bryant is a Chester County resident. Her subject, August Wilson, grew up in Pittsburgh, which is the setting for many of his plays.
Adults may recognize Wilson’s plays from having read or seen them in their theatre, television, or film adaptations. But how do younger readers become familiar with one of Pennsylvania’s most famous Pulitzer Prize winning authors? By reading Bryant’s biography, younger audiences will learn about Wilson’s early and teen years. They will also understand the joy that reading, writing, speaking, and listening can bring to everyday life.
The story of August Wilson follows the format of a play. It’s separated into two acts and written in narrative verse. In act one, readers discover Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. and called Freddy.
Freddy’s mother, Daisy, only has a 6th grade education, but reads to her son often. She tells him, “If you can read, you can do anything [and] you can be anything.” By age four, Freddy knows how to read food labels, clothing labels, and street signs. It isn’t long before his mother introduces him to the wonders of the library. By fourteen, Freddy reads everything he can, from his sister’s “Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew” books to magazines, newspapers, and history books. His favorite books, though, are in what the library at that time called the “Negro Books” section, which featured authors like Hughes, Dunbar, Ellison, and Wright.
In act two, Freddy delights in learning but finds school a difficult place to be. He is the only Black student at his high school and is bullied day in and day out for the color of his skin. Freddy decides to try another school, but he experiences the exact same torment and racial prejudice there, too. Freddy eventually drops out of school, but continues to learn by going to the Carnegie Public Library where he reads and writes every day. At nineteen, Freddy decides to change his name to “August.” From that point on, Bryant explains how August Wilson, by writing about his everyday experiences, became one of America’s most influential and famous playwrights.
I believe everyone should know the story of August Wilson. Younger readers will appreciate his early struggles and how he overcame them, his tenacity for learning, his immense talent, and the influence he had on culture and the art of playwriting. In his forties, he wrote one play for each decade in the twentieth century. Those plays provide a moving snapshot of what it’s like to be Black in America.
Reviewer Karla Schmit is the director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book.
“Feed Your Mind” represented Pennsylvania at the 2020 National Book Festival.