Sister Anne’s Hands: Book Review (Catholic Black History)
Catholic Black History Month Series: Sister Anne’s Hands written by Marybeth Lorbiecki and illustrated by Wendy Popp
February is Black History Month, the month we set aside to appreciate the experiences and contributions of African Americans in the United States. In honor of Black History Month, I am going to spend the next few weeks reviewing black history themed books that may be of interest to Catholic homeschool families. This will hopefully prove helpful if you’re planning a Catholic Black History Month unit study or deep dive into the topic.
Today I am reviewing the picture book Sister Anne’s Hands (Puffin Books, 1998). Sister Anne’s Hands tells the story of a Catholic schoolgirl’s first encounter with racism in the 1960s when an African American nun comes to teach at her parochial school. The experience becomes an occasion of learning and understanding between two people who, though of different races, are bonded by the universality of the Catholic faith.
Anna is a seven-year-old girl from a Polish-Catholic family attending a traditional parochial school in the 1960s taught by nuns. It is the age of the civil rights movement and integration, and Anna’s family learns that a “colored” nun will be teaching Anna’s class. This is Sister Anne, a humble and patient sister who impresses young Anna with her kindness and engaging style of teaching. Unfortunately, an ugly outburst of racism serves as a reminder that even a Catholic classroom is not immune from the country’s racial turmoil. Sister Anne, however, turns the incident into a teaching moment, and with truth and grace, wins a place in the heart of her students and forever changes Anna’s perception.
This book is around 40 pages long, but with large font and most pages dedicated to the beautiful illustrations, it can easily be read in ten minutes. I was quite impressed with the book for several reasons:
First, the wonderful art of illustrator K. Wendy Popp. The illustrations are done in pastels, which is an extremely challenging medium that makes Popp’s skillful execution here doubly impressive. I have seen K. Wendy Popp’s pastel illustrations in other works, and she has a way of utilizing the “dusty” nature of pastel to give her illustrations a hazy, dreamlike quality. This method works exceptionally well in Sister Anne’s Hands, giving the illustrations a nostalgic feel reminiscent of a 1960s photograph. There are plenty of gorgeous depictions of traditional Catholic parochial school life—images, the illustrator relates on the dedication page, that were crafted from observations made in a real Catholic parochial school.
The writing is excellent. Without giving away too much, I particularly appreciated how the author, Marybeth Lorbiecki, chose to situate Sister Anne’s response to the racist incident within the Catholic idea of encountering God through openness to others, as taught in the Beatitudes and parables of Christ. It is another way the work is not just another commentary on racism, but a commentary from a Catholic perspective.
I naturally wondered whether this book was based on a true story. We are never told. The acknowledgements page mention a a Sr. Anne Thompson to whom the book is dedicated, whom I assume may have been the inspiration for the Sister Anne in the story. Whether or not the events of Sister Anne’s Hands ever occurred, it s certain that there must have been thousands of stories similar to what the book relates. It is thus a true characterization of what this period was like, even if the details may not have occurred.
I have no real criticisms of this book, save a nitpick that it is marketed for children 4 to 8 years old but the text assumes historical knowledge that I’m sure most 4 to 8 year olds do not possess. For example, it mentions “flower power” and The Ed Sullivan Show in passing without explaining what these cultural icons were; I’m fairly certain that no 4- to 8-year old in the 2020’s knows what The Ed Sullivan Show is. In fact, there are probably parents today who don’t know what it is.
Some authors like including these sorts of details because they prompt kids to ask, “What’s The Ed Sullivan Show?”, the parent explains, and it facilitates an educational encounter between parent and child. I personally don’t like this approach as much simply because it disturbs the narrative—the parent must stop reading the story to explain the reference to the child. I do, however, understand this is merely my preference. And even so, there are not many occasions of this in the book, so it’s not a huge deal.
Overall, I recommend Sister Anne’s Hands highly. It was competently written and beautifully illustrated. And thematically, it is difficult to find books that address America’s complex racial history within a Catholic framework. The setting of Sister Anne’s Hands within a parochial school with the titular character being a Catholic nun makes this book ideal for broaching this subject within a Catholic homeschool. Like I said, it’s not a long book (you can easily get through it in a single sitting) but you might find it worth incorporating into a larger unit on this subject or within your elementary American history class when you cover the Civil Rights era.
Sister Anne’s Hands can be purchased on Amazon at this link (affiliate link)
BONUS: If you would like to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement yourself or have a high school student, check out Homeschool Connections’ recorded, self-paced course Civil Rights in America, 1863-1968: Setbacks, Struggles, and Shockwaves taught by Dr. Christopher Martin. Recorded courses can be taken individually ($17.97/month) or as a part of our Unlimited Access program ($34.97/month).