This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Two brand-new picture books for children tell stories of the struggles African Americans faced in decades past with regard to their right to vote, one even closing with a note about today’s ongoing inequalities. The books take different approaches, but each humanizes the struggles by introducing us to characters we care about and root for.
Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box, with the evocative illustrations of James E. Ransome, is told from the point of view of a young boy who joins his grandfather on the day that marks his first opportunity to vote after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Authors Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein take their time at the book’s opening to establish the deep and affectionate relationship between the boy and his grandfather. In fact, the boy lives at his grandparents’ farm and helps his granddaddy toil in the fields, feed animals, and milk cows. But they don’t just work together; they play together too, his grandfather always reminding him of the importance of patience in life.
One morning, the boy wonders at his grandparents’ odd behavior: His grandmother has brought Granddaddy his newly ironed suit, and she sends him and the boy off with a camera, telling the boy, “Don’t forget to take pictures.” The boy puts on his own tie and assumes they’re going to the fair. But soon after they leave home, they are in line to vote. This is a huge moment for the boy’s grandfather, and he swells with pride. The boy notes:
“Nobody in my family had ever voted before. Where we lived, some people were allowed
to vote and some people were not. I never knew anyone who had voted before. But I had
heard my teacher say that some new laws had changed all that.”
White voters repeatedly cut in front of the boy and his grandfather in line. (“That’s just how things worked where we lived.”) Just before it’s his turn to cast his ballot and right after the boy snaps a picture of this proud moment, the boy’s grandfather is given a literacy test by a white cop. He fails the test, the deputy rips up his ballot, and the two are sent home.
Fast forward a decade, and we see the boy as a young adult. The picture he’d snapped of his grandfather before the literacy test, when he momentarily believed he’d be a part of democracy, is sitting on his desk. It’s 1976, and in the next spread we see him in line to vote, remembering his grandfather’s advice to be patient. “He was right. The day finally came. And I knew that—just like my granddaddy—I would never take it for granted.” The boy has brought the photograph of his grandfather and casts his ballot: “Now it’s Granddaddy’s turn.”
Jonah Winter’s Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 introduces us to Lillian, a “very old woman stand[ing] at the bottom of a very steep hill.” The hill is both literal and metaphorical in this story of her slow journey to the voting booth, remembering her family’s discrimination battles along the way. It’s “a long haul when you’ve been alive for a hundred years. It’s a long haul when you’ve lived the life that Lillian has—and walked so far in her shoes.”
When Lillian looks up, she sees the blue sky—but also history. In her mind’s eye, she sees her great-great-grandparents, sold into slavery. Next, she sees her great-grandpa Edmund, working for his white master. She sees Edmund and his wife voting for the first time in 1870. She recalls her Uncle Levi, talking about the literacy test he was forced to take, thereby rendering him unable to vote. She sees herself as a young girl in 1920, being chased away with her parents by an angry mob. She even recalls her own impossible literacy tests, the ones she faced as an adult. She sees much more, including President Lyndon Johnson, signing the Voting Rights Act. Illustrator Shane W. Evans depicts what readers see in Lillian’s memory via spectral, sketchlike drawings that merge with the landscape as the elderly lady in her crimson dress keeps trudging up the hill. He includes sun images throughout the book, a potent reminder of hope.
She stops along the way to encourage a young man to vote. (“’You better,’ she says, and she means it.”) In the end, we see the striking spread of her long, bony finger, pushing the lever herself, along with two mighty words: “Lillian votes.”
A closing Author’s Note tells readers briefly about the real person upon whom Winter based Lillian. Winter also explains how African Americans were excluded from voting—via literacy tests, poll taxes, etc. The author includes the “sad coda to this story”—how two years ago the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby resulting in the voter ID laws of many states. “The right to vote still needs protection,” he writes. “Will a new generation rise and continue this fight?”
It’s a powerful question and fitting closing to a story that must continue to be told.
GRANDDADDY'S TURN. Text copyright © 2015 by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by James E. Ransome. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.