The weekend of Jan. 20 was Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Georgia) weekend, at least as far as the children’s-book world was concerned.
Winner in November 2016 of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for March: Book Three, the congressman found himself awash in medals at the American Library Association’s announcements of its youth-media awards in Atlanta—in his district, in fact—on Monday, Jan. 23, just days after not attending the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. The Jan. 17 announcement that his graphic memoir, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, had won the 2017 Walter Award, sponsored by We Need Diverse Books, looked, in retrospect, like the first drops of a deluge.
The first one announced was the Coretta Scott King Author Award. The audience went nuts. The second was the Young Adult Library Association’s Excellence in Nonfiction Award. The audience shrieked and clapped again. Then came the Michael L. Printz Award, also awarded by YALSA. When Lewis’ unprecedented fourth and final medal, the Association of Library Service to Children’s Robert F. Sibert Award, was announced, the audience shouted “March!” along with announcer Andrew Medlar, immediate past president of ALSC.
Two days earlier, on Saturday, Lewis had spoken at Atlanta’s March for Social Justice and Women, which counted among its participants many librarians. On Sunday, his arrival in the convention center to sign March was greeted by cheers from the throngs of librarians lined up to meet him.
If this was Lewis’ weekend, it was also his crowd. When he accepted the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award a couple hours after its announcement, the room was packed, and his fellow award recipients seemed giddy at the proximity. “I love you,” announced Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, author of The Smell of Other People’s Houses, a finalist for YALSA’s Morris Debut Award, which was presented in the same ceremony. Pamela S. Turner, author of Samurai Rising, illustrated by Gareth Hinds, an Excellence in Nonfiction finalist, told of her daughter’s disappointment that she couldn't attend; apparently it wasn't because she wanted to fly the family flag: “Actually, Mom, I just wanted to see John Lewis.”
We all wanted to see John Lewis, and when he took the podium, I was struck by his sheer, robust vitality. The man who'd been beaten but not broken in Selma and who had healed to march again—the story he recounts in his much-lauded book and its predecessors—and who has gone on to continue his fight for justice even into the present, over 50 years later, seems not one whit diminished by age. And his voice is strong and rich, his rolling tones clearly informed by the black church he once aspired to preach in (as recounted in Jabari Asim and E.B.Lewis’ picture book, Preaching to the Chickens).
Lewis told us of growing up reading “the wish book” (aka the Sears Roebuck catalog) and the books shared with him by his teacher/librarian in his rural Alabama school and the signs that read “Colored” and “White.” He told us of losing his backpack, and the two books he'd put in it, on that bridge in Selma and of courting his late wife, a librarian. And he thanked us, the people who create books for children and put them in their hands.
It seems almost impossible to contain that vigor in a book, but together with Aydin and Powell, he’s created an astonishing, initially unlikely work, a three-volume graphic memoir that brings the events of 50-some years ago to readers with an immediacy that bridges those decades and makes his passion electric. Thanks to Top Shelf, its publisher, and the many committees that have honored March: Book Three, it should inspire kids to get into what Lewis calls “good trouble—necessary trouble” for generations to come.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.