Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer

 

by Heather Henson
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Stephen Bishop is a slave. Assigned by his master to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in 1838, Stephen has become an expert guide for tourists visiting the natural wonder. He has searched its trails, discovered eyeless fish and albino crayfish in its streams, and made the original detailed map of the explored parts—he was the first to cross a spot called the “Bottomless Pit.” Since little is known of Bishop besides his work, Henson presents him as he might want to speak to modern readers. Her poetic words convey his pride in his expertise, his fascination with the cave, and his utter frustration at being a slave. Only underground does he feel the dignity and authority that his knowledge gives him. He has even learned to read in the cave, as a result of tourists’ graffiti written with soot from candles on long sticks. (Visitors can still see his signature—“Stephen.”) Award-winning artist Collier employs a rich palette of browns and black for excursions underground, reserving blues and greens for time in the sun, as in portraits of Bishop, his wife Charlotte, and their son in front of the small slave house; especially beautiful is a page of collage framing Bishop’s face. Speaking directly to readers, he tells them that no one knows exactly how he died, but he’s still there as a spirit of the cave. “Sometimes you just got to lift your light a little higher…go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold.” Young (and older) readers can learn more from endnotes by Henson and Collier and from Elizabeth Mitchell’s novel, Journey to the Bottomless Pit (Scholastic, 2004) or, best of all, visiting Mammoth Cave National Park.

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft