Dear Benjamin Banneker


Dear Benjamin Banneker

by Andrea Davis Pinkney

  • publisher and date: Gulliver Books, 1994
  • genre: biography
  • age/grade: recommended for grades 1-3, but I don’t think it would hold the attention of my first graders. I agree with the review found below from the School Library Journal.

Synopsis (from
Benjamin Banneker was born free when most blacks in this country were still enslaved. But it troubled him that not all blacks were free. An accomplished astronomer and mathematician, he decided to take a stand against slavery by writing to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. This is the story of their extraordinary correspondence.

Author’s Perspective: (from: Voices from the Gaps)

Andrea Davis Pinkney was born on September 25, 1963 in Washington, D.C., the daughter of parents deeply involved in the civil rights movement. As a result, Pinkney was exposed to the movement at a young age and was even involved in the annual conference of the National Urban League during many of her summer vacations. The Civil Rights Movement played a large role in her childhood and its influence is visible in many of her books.

Children’s literature can be a great tool to convey important messages to children without preaching at them. In an interview with Ilene Cooper and David Pitt, Pinkney stated that she noticed the lack of African-American literature geared toward and available to children (Cooper, 1). She decided to create something that would operate around their cultural norms and morals, something that would reflect their lives, their cultural heritage, and the achievements of African-American figures. Pinkney’s books express the theme that any African-American can attain his or her goals with intelligence and hard work-even when faced with obstacles. (from:

Literary Elements:

Organization and Scope – Andrea has a 2 page “author’s note” at the beginning of the book. I found this helpful since I had no background knowledge of Benjamin Banneker. This helped to set the context of the book.

Style – Includes parts of the letter that Benjamin Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson along with part of Thomas Jefferson’s reply. Very tough vocabulary is found in the letters.

Tone – I agree with the review of School Library Journal, that Benjamin Banneker does not come alive in this biography.

Curriculum Connections:

(I don’t know if I would use this book in the classroom. I found it a tricky one to read.)

Persuasive Essay – Write a persuasive essay to Thomas Jefferson, explaining why everyone, black and white, should be free.

Web Resources:


Publishers Weekly (from

The Pinkneys (Alvin Ailey; Seven Candles for Kwanzaa) continue their impressive collaboration with this memorable portrait of Benjamin Banneker, a free African American born in 1731. Lucid text and striking illustrations, rendered on scratchboard and colored with oil paint, shape a solid, sober tribute of a vigorous thinker, a self-taught mathematician and scientist, a man concerned with civil rights. This persevering man labored by day on his Maryland tobacco farm; by night he observed the sky and learned astronomy. Producing an almanac-something no African American had ever done-he tried in vain to find a publisher. In 1790, the president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery helped him secure publication-but it was so late in the year that Banneker had to create an entirely new set of calculations. He recognized the irony of his achievement: while the almanac would be of use to many individuals and would demonstrate the abilities of black people, he realized that slaves themselves would never benefit from his book, since most were forbidden to learn to read or to have books. Banneker’s frustration led him to write to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, pointing out the statesman’s inconsistency in proclaiming that all men are created equal even as he owned slaves. Excerpts from the correspondence between the two men are woven into the narrative, deepening the poignancy of this moving story with the presence of historical weight. Ages 6-10. Children’s BOMC featured selection. (Oct.)

School Library Journal (from

Gr 1-3-This look at the life and times of the 18th-century black scientist is accompanied by Brian Pinkney’s full-page masterful and luminous scratchboard/ oil paintings. Andrea Pinkney provides a basic outline of her subject’s youth and years as a tobacco farmer, his passion for learning and interest in astronomy, and his decision to write an almanac. She focuses the account on an exchange of letters in 1791, when Banneker sent a copy of his newly printed almanac to Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Secretary of State, and chastised him for keeping slaves. The reply sounds like a polite brush-off, and Jefferson made no acknowledgement of the dichotomy between his Declaration of Independence and his ownership of slaves. The quoting of these letters in the prose of the time forces the inclusion of vocabulary and syntax several levels above that of the audience for which the book seems intended. Although the bare-bones details are here, he does not come alive; while the art is lovely, the text offers just a glimpse at this remarkable man’s accomplishments. The author states that the publishing of Banneker’s almanac “showed everybody that indeed all men are created equal.” Since the almanac reached a limited audience, one wonders how many people at the time even knew who Banneker was, or about his ethnic background. Although the book is more accessible to younger readers than Jeri Ferris’s What Are You Figuring Now? (Carolrhoda, 1988), it may not hold their attention.-Martha Rosen, Edgewood School, Scarsdale, NY


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