Etched in Clay

Sometime around 1815, an enslaved young man named Dave was brought to Edgefield, South Carolina, the center of a pottery-producing area known for the alkaline glazes used on the stoneware. Dave was taught how to turn pots and jars on a pottery wheel by one of his first owners. As Dave’s talent flourished, he created pieces of great beauty and often massive size. He also somehow learned to read and write, in spite of South Carolina’s strongly-held fear of slave literacy. And then Dave did something even more incredible—he began to sign his jars and carve many of them with sayings and poems that reflected his daily life and experiences. He spoke out against slavery not by protesting or revolting, but by daring to write at all. Andrea Cheng has crafted a biography in verse as beautiful as one of Dave’s jars. In simple, powerful words, including some of Dave’s original writings, we learn his extraordinary story of courage, creative inspiration, and triumph. Today Dave is considered to be a master craftsperson whose jars are among the most sought-after pieces of Edgefield pottery.

Master says Dave--that suits you. That's your name." He can call me whatever he pleases, tom or John or Will or Dave, no matter. I had another name once. I can't remember the sound of it; but I know the voice, smooth and soft, that whispered it in my ear in the still night. And then it was gone.
Author perspective

I first heard about Dave while listening to a review of Leonard Todd’s wonderful book, Carolina Clay. After reading the book, I was deeply moved by the story of Dave’s life. I had learned about the heroism of people throughout history who had risked their lives for freedom. I was especially interested in Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. But I had never heard of a person like Dave the Potter. How did he dare to write couplets on the walls of his jars at a time that he could have been hung for even reading a book? The story touched me for many reasons. I grew up in a neighborhood which was predominantly African American in a city which was full of racial conflict. I remember sitting in the front yard with my neighborhood friends, most of whom were African American, and hearing the sounds of the race riots in 1968 just a few blocks away. Perhaps because of these early experiences, I am deeply interested in struggles for civil rights around the world. My children, who are biracial, have grown up in this same neighborhood and have also been significantly affected by similar issues of race and class. I also have a connection to Dave’s love of clay. As a child, my neighbors and I spent hot summer days in the basement of the community center. There was a big vat of red clay, and from it we formed sculptures and pots. I learned to slice and wedge the clay so it would hold up in the kiln. I practiced centering a mound of clay on the potter’s wheel. I came to love the feeling of clay in my hands. This interest was passed on to one of my children who is now an avid potter. Like Dave, I also write poetry. I started writing poems when I was about eight, and I have been writing poetry and prose ever since. I was encouraged by teachers, family members, and friends. I cannot imagine writing at all in the circumstances in which Dave lived and worked. I have told Dave’s story in a way that I hope he would have liked, in poems and woodcuts which attempt to communicate some aspects of his life. In some small way, I hope I can pay tribute to the quiet heroism of this man.


"Cheng follows on the Caldecott Honor–winning Dave the Potter, by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier (2010), to further open up the fascinating life of the enslaved potter named Dave for children. . . . Cheng’s spare free-verse poems masterfully highlight the repeated hardships Dave endured: being relocated no fewer than four times when loaned or sold to a new owner; losing two wives when their owners forced them to move to different states; losing his leg after being hit by a train; and, in the face of severe anti-literacy laws designed to keep slaves down, bravely creating art that “etched in clay” his ability to read and write. . . . [It is] at once intimate and universal; the riveting story of an unforgettable life lived during an unbelievable time."

School Library Journal

"The pain of slavery and its disregard for human worth reverberates throughout this beautifully written, beautifully illustrated account of an enslaved potter in South Carolina in the 19th century. Cheng’s sensitive verses, written in the voice of Dave and the people involved in his life, share the man’s innermost feelings, the sensation of shaping clay on the potter’s wheel, and hints at conflicts within a slave owner’s mind. But even with a master who seems to have some appreciation of Dave’s talents, the ugliness of slavery takes over. The matter-of-fact, unfeeling way in which Eliza, Dave’s first wife, is sold off speaks volumes. Dave’s need to communicate and be noticed comes out in the risk he takes by inscribing some verse and words on the pots he creates. This deep need squelches any fear of reprisals when literacy was a punishable offense for slaves. Motivated by her belief that everyone needs to read Scriptures in order to be saved, the slave owner’s wife started Dave on his quest to read. Through all of the adversity, he stoically carries on despite being sold, despite having loved ones repeatedly taken from him, and despite losing a leg in a train accident, always spurred on by the need to communicate. Cheng has created a passionate homage to the human spirit, which speaks volumes in this brief book. Her woodcuts add another layer to the drama that unfolds in the telling. A powerful and uplifting biography."

Washington Post

"Andrea Cheng takes the few historical details known about Dave and, in resonant poems and stark, expressive woodcuts, fleshes out his life from 1815 to 1870. During this time, Dave became one of the finest potters in Edgefield, S.C. Although Dave is the principal speaker, Cheng also includes poems from the perspectives of his two wives and various owners. This multivoice narration offers a wide lens on Dave, his artistry and events of the period, including his first wife’s grueling experience as a house slave and his final owner’s fears for his three Confederate soldier sons. Through precise imagery, Cheng conveys the consciousness of a man who enjoys the “short, clean strokes” of his work while also railing at the fate of his soon-to-be-sold stepsons, clinging “to their mother/ like baby possums.” A poem is a “valuable thing,” Dave says. Through her haunting, honed verse, Cheng has given readers a valuable thing indeed: the life of a quiet rebel."

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Lee and Low Books
Andrea Cheng
Publication date: 
Jan 2013
Interest level: 
Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award , Jun 2014
Parent's Choice Gold Award , Jun 2014
Junior Library Guild selection , Jun 2014
Teacher's Choices Reading List IRA, May 2014
Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts Children's Literature Assembly, Jun 2014
Skipping Stones Honor Book Award Skipping Stones Magazine, Jun 2014
Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) Choices award, Jun 2014
Ohioana Book Award winner , Aug 2014
Storytelling World Resource Award Winner , Mar 2015