I’ve got nonfiction picture books on the mind today—in particular, two brand-new, early 2015 ones that I think are well worth your time in many ways. Both happen to be about people no longer willing to tolerate the status quo, which can be the stuff of compelling stories, indeed.
Let’s start with Hester Bass’ brand-new book. Back in 2009, she wrote The Secret World of Walter Anderson, which was an exceptionally good picture book biography and which was awarded the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award. Kirkus also named it a Best Children’s Book from that year. I was happy to see, out on shelves now, Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, who also illustrated Bass’ 2009 book. (Lucky her.)
Bass, who now lives in New Mexico, lived in Huntsville for 10 years. Using the notion of planting seeds as an overriding metaphor for civil rights victories in Huntsville, Alabama, in the 1960s, she vividly brings to life the events of that time in this superb new book. (“The seeds of freedom are planted in Huntsville. What will it take to make them grow?”) Opening with a powerful image of a rocket near a cotton field, thereby juxtaposing Huntsville as the “Space Center of the Universe” and a place of slavery in previous decades, she then launches into a description of “the invisible lines not to be crossed” in this Alabama town. On the next spread, Lewis brings us the powerful illustration of a young black girl holding up a drawing of her feet in a shoe store, as she’s not allowed to try on shoes because of her skin color. Her face communicates galaxies of information.
Bass covers sit-ins, including the arrest of three black women and a baby; MLK’s visit to Huntsville; Blue Jean Sunday; a Mother’s Day at whites-only Big Spring Park, during which African-Americans gathered to protest; President Kennedy’s visit to the city in July of 1962; a nonviolent protest in a Birmingham park (not far from Huntsville), where people were met with “gushing fire hoses and snarling dogs”; and much more. It all culminates with mention of the first case of what was called “reverse integration” in Alabama: Twelve white students start school at a private religious institution with all black students. She also writes about Dr. Sonnie W. Hereford III, who walked into Fifth Avenue School with his 6-year-old son, the first black child in Alabama to attend a public school once designated for whites only.
It’s a tightly woven account of how the people of one community joined forces to nonviolently integrate their city and its schools. And Lewis’ watercolors are beautiful, even cinematic in spots. One very impressionistic spread includes an insert illustration showing an aerial view of MLK’s legendary speech in D.C., while the rest of the spread depicts a group of nonviolent protestors being hosed down—in a blur of movement and energy and struggle. It’s a striking and very moving moment.
It’s almost Black History Month, and every year when February rolls around, publishers like to tell you all about their new Black History titles. So, you may see several mentions of this book, which certainly marks pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement in the South, but be sure you share it with students all throughout the year, not just one designated year of the month. And that’s because it’s such a well-crafted book in every possible way. Bass is proving herself to be one of children’s literature’s most talented new picture-book biographers.
Another outstanding new book is Kathleen Benson’s Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews. Andrews was an American painter and educator, born in 1930 in Plainview, Georgia, where he “drew black people at work in the fields,” the world that surrounded him. Always a drawer but not sent to school as a child (black children in Plainview at that time were needed on the farms), he eventually made his way to a high school and then went to a small college. After military service, he attended art school and then moved to New York City to work as an artist. Benson lays out the facts of Andrews’ life—Andrews, for one, fought hard to protest the frequent exclusion of women and artists of color from museum collections—with great respect and earnestness: “He believed that art was for everyone.”
Most striking here is that the book includes paintings from Andrews himself. It really works; each painting illuminates the artist’s life and gives readers a glimpse of his inimitable style. A closing note lists the name of each painting and the year it was created.
Benson collaborated with Andrews during his lifetime on the picture book John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement; she and her late husband, Jim Haskins, wrote it, and Andrews illustrated it. This biography of the groundbreaking work of Andrews couldn’t be in better hands.
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.