My Name Is James Madison Hemings By Jonah Winter

Beautifully written and compelling story. Many gorgeous illustrations.

My only complaint is the cover art. The illustration of James Madison Hemings with an exceptionally long neck, more like a caricature, in my opinion demeans the nature of the story. The illustration, to me, removes him and his story from the realm of someone to take seriously and places him in the land of slightly stereotypic humorous fiction. 40 Really powerful long picture book about reckoning with history. I'm actually going to try and booktalk this to a group of 3rd and 4th graders today... 40 **This originally appeared on a Non-Fiction for Youth discussion board for my Children's Literature class**

In the article, “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science,” the authors caution against selecting science books that contain “idealized descriptions of scientists as heroic and larger than life” (Zarnowski and Turkel, 2013, p. 298). This same advice could also be used when selecting nonfiction materials related to the Founding Fathers of the United States, of which Thomas Jefferson was one. Jefferson has been memorialized as a president and author of our nation’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence. This memorialization in text and architecture (the Jefferson Memorial) glosses over the more disturbing details of Jefferson’s life. Like all of us, he was imperfect, but after reading this book, he could also be viewed as hypocritical too (or some will argue, a man of his time). In the Author’s Note, Jonah Winter states that “Jefferson’s life and legacy are full of contradictions” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), which is putting the contradictions in Jefferson’s personal life and public politics, quite mildly!

In My Name is James Madison Hemings, we read about Jefferson’s son was born into slavery due to the slave status of his mother, Sally Hemings. We read about James’ efforts to reconcile that his master was also his father, and that he would never receive the same amount of love or education that Jefferson’s white children and grandchildren received. Although James, his mother, and his siblings were slaves, they were spared some of the harsher parts of slave life due to their biological connection to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson spared the Hemings family from participating in backbreaking field labor, gave the Hemmings boys violins, and let the Hemings children learn to read and write, in a time when it was illegal to educate slaves in any manner.

There is debate nowadays on whether the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was consensual or not. While this book doesn’t talk about that aspect of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, the book tells us that Sally and her children were relocated from the slaves’ quarters to the dependencies- rooms near a smokehouse and the horse stables. Moving the Hemings family to the section of Monticello where animals lived and died was an act of kindness with a double meaning; this relocation could be interpreted that the Hemings were viewed in a liminal status by Jefferson: not animals, but not quite human either. After Jefferson died, his children were freed from the bonds of slavery, but Sally, their mother, was not.

Although the author notes that he “presented this story in a first-person narrative as historical fiction” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), the spine label on my library copy says, “J B Hemings” for Juvenile Biography. If I were to recommend this book to someone, I would tell them not to be fooled by the slimness of the text. Although the book may be small in pages, the content within is intense for a children’s book. I would recommend this for an older elementary child due to the serious content of the book. The impressionistic art style of the illustrations mirrors James’ uncertainty about his father’s affections and his own place in the world.

You can read more about Sally Hemings and her legacy at the Monticello website.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t. Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death…A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year.”
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “An eccentric, smart, and quirky bibliophile, Arturo Schomburg fueled his life with books. This picture book of free verse poems, lavishly illustrated in oils, opens with stories from Schomburg’s childhood in Puerto Rico, where he constantly asked why the history of black people had been left out of all the history books. Answering him, framed, date-stamped panels, appearing primarily on the right sides of the double-page spreads throughout, capture the stories of important historical black figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Cuffee. The poem “Whitewash” will surprise some readers; Schomburg objected to the common practice of omitting from biographies the African heritage of prominent individuals such as naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon, French writer Alexandre Dumas, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Alongside these, Schomburg’s personal and professional life unfolds in unframed images. Schomburg worked as a mail clerk with Banker’s Trust; his book-collecting and library building resulted from his life’s passion, not his vocation. All of the book’s details paint Schomburg as an admirable, flawed, likable, passionate man whose lasting legacy, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, opens its doors to all who would learn more about the people its founder knew had been left out of the written record. A must-read for a deeper understanding of a well-connected genius who enriched the cultural road map for African-Americans and books about them.”


Kirkus Reviews, (2016, June 28). Lift your light a little higher. Retrieved from

Kirkus Reviews, (2017, May 24). Schomburg: the man who built a library. Retrieved from

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. (2018). The Life of Sally Hemings. Retrieved from

Winter, J. and Widener, T. (2016). My name is James Madison Hemmings. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.

Zarnowski, M. and Turkel, S. (2013). How nonfiction reveals the nature of science. Children’s Literature in Education 44(4), 295-310.

**You can read more of my reviews at 40 This is the biography of James Madison Hemings, the alleged son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. 40 Well-done historical fiction. Gorgeous illustrations. 40


Here is a picture book for older readers (we need more of them!) that doesn't tiptoe around the truth. Yippee, Jonah Winters! Beautifully told from the point-of-view of James Madison Hemings as a child, he tells how he feels to be owned by his father, treated a bit better than the other slaves at Monticello, but nowhere near like Jefferson treated his white grandchildren. Terry Widener's illustrations are right-on, perfect for the text. Usually Jonah Winter's mother, Jeanette, does his illustrations, but as much as I LOVE her work, I really like the way this book is presented as a whole. It was a brave topic to be tackled for a children's picture book and Jonah Winter did an admirable job. 40 This is an outstanding picture book that introduces young children to the issue of slavery and family histories as a result of that institution. James Madison Hemings is one of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson's children and this is Madison's story. Pair this with Jefferson's Children by Lanier and Feldman. 40 Can you imagine your father also owning you as a slave? James Madison Hemings was the son of founding father and third President of the USA Thomas Jefferson and a slave whom he owned, Sally Hemings. Winter cleverly tells this story in the first person, from James' point of view, so that readers can feel the psychological and emotional impact of having a father who owns you and doesn't acknowledge you as his child. So sad, wanting and needing a father's love and approval, and never getting it. In addition, James and his siblings, who according to the author's note at the end of the book, were recently verified via DNA testing to definitely be Jefferson's children, could easily have passed as white. Since not a lot is known about James' life, Winter tells us in the author's note what he invented and which facts are verified in the story. Apparently James' relationship to Jefferson wasn't publicly known until he gave a newspaper interview in 1873. I do like that the narrator, James, doesn't reveal until the end of the book the identity of his father, keeping the reader shocked that a father would treat his child that way, and then even more shocked to discover that that father was someone so famous. Winter cleverly places on those final pages illustrations of both Jefferson and James, so that readers can clearly see the family resemblance. This excellent book should make young readers think. Highly recommended! 40 I think this is a perfectly (and beautifully) written and illustrated biography of Thomas Jefferson's & his slave, Sally Hemings's, son, and the very disturbing and complex life he led as an enslaved child of his own father. It is sensitive to the young audience but does not hide the horrible truth of slavery or the fact that one of our most revered Founding Fathers was unforgivably flawed (to say the least).

The impressionist art is gorgeous. 40 This is an important picture book about Thomas Jefferson's son by Sally Hemings, and it is done well for a young audience. My 7 year old son loves Virginia history and history of the Presidents, and I wasn't sure whether he would be ready for this, but just as it has been helpful not to whitewash the story of Washington's enslavement of people, I took a risk of allowing him to get a glimpse of the more complicated history of Thomas Jefferson. The book handles the truth in an age-appropriate way, and I think the only thing that was difficult for my son to handle as a reader was the depth of his outrage and upset. He finds injustice to be upsetting in general, but the depth of personal cruelty involved in a person's own father being his enslaver was difficult, and struggle to articulate what it was about the book that made this difficult. I think it was, perhaps, that the story was overtly emotionless...perhaps to emphasize that James Madison Hemings stood no benefit from overt outrage or anger. The illustrations showed faces that were, for lack of a better term, passive. Expressionless. And several times, my son would exclaim, Why aren't they ANGRY? After reading it, he is eager to visit Monticello and learn more. 40

Here’s a powerful historical picture book about the child of founding father Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings.

In an evocative first-person account accompanied by exquisite artwork, Winter and Widener tell the story of James Madison Hemings’s childhood at Monticello, and, in doing so, illuminate the many contradictions in Jefferson’s life and legacy. Though Jefferson lived in a mansion, Hemings and his siblings lived in a single room. While Jefferson doted on his white grandchildren, he never showed affection to his enslaved children. Though he kept the Hemings boys from hard field labor—instead sending them to work in the carpentry shop—Jefferson nevertheless listed the children in his “Farm Book” along with the sheep, hogs, and other property. Here is a profound and moving account of one family’s history, which is also America’s history.

An author's note includes more information about Hemings, Jefferson, and the author's research. My Name Is James Madison Hemings

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