This past weekend, I managed to catch the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women while in town for the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference. If, like me, you marched (or couldn’t make one, yet wholeheartedly supported the notion of a march), you may wonder: What is next? I think a lot of people, women in particular, have this top of mind.
There was a theme, it turns out, to my Atlanta visit. Not only did I manage to catch the march, but the next day I also visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which was a moving experience. In fact, I was on my way there when I caught the march and thought, temporarily putting off the visit, why see the museum today when I’m seeing civil rights in action on this historic day? And then, at the announcement of the ALA 2017 Youth Media Awards, I learned, along with a crowd of other excited librarians, that Congressman John Lewis’ March: Book Three, the finale of the March graphic novel trilogy, received a record-breaking four awards. The Center for Civil and Human Rights is, in part, about Lewis’ efforts during the civil rights movement in America during the 1960s, so you can see a common theme here. It was a compelling weekend.
When I think of the what-next question, I can’t help but think of children’s books. If you marched with a child or explained to a child why so many people all over the world marched last weekend, here are three brand-new books for children (and teens) that continue the theme.
Let’s start with the aforementioned and acclaimed March: Book Three, released in August of last year. If you’ve not yet read Books One (2013) and Two (2015), get thee to a library or bookstore and fix that, because the story of the American civil rights movement during the 1960s, as told from Congressman Lewis, an icon of the movement and an American hero, is powerful – and powerfully told. Co-written with Andrew Aydin, the third book opens with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed the lives of four young girls. Lewis and Aydin don’t flinch from the truth as the book progresses; Lewis’ own experience at Bloody Sunday is included here, as well as his public work and private experiences during his activism. The 1965 Voting Rights Act closes the book, though it’s ultimately bookended with President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, which is what opens the entire trilogy. Nate Powell’s illustrations pack an emotional punch, page after page, as they do in the first two books. The trilogy (each book has received a starred review from Kirkus) is essential reading for teens, as well as middle school students just coming to an understanding of this vital and tumultuous time in American history.
While at Midwinter, I had the pleasure of moderating a picture book panel discussion with author Carmen Agra Deedy, author-illustrator Peter Reynolds, and author Kate Messner. Carmen’s new picture book, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, arrives on shelves at the end of this month. At its heart, it’s an allegorical story of standing up to oppression, making it a great way to share with children the very reason so many people marched last weekend. Deedy, who was born in Cuba, shared at our panel discussion that the book was originally much longer in length, a much different beast. About ten years in the making, it’s now a picture book and what the Kirkus review (also starred) calls “a subtle, modern multicultural tale.” It’s the story of La Paz, a noisy village. When the tyrannical Don Pepe becomes mayor, he bans all noise, including the town’s jubilant singing. (“Even the teakettles were afraid to whistle.”) But one little rooster just can’t keep himself quiet, and nothing—the loss of his home, the removal of food and even his family, the absence of light, and the very threat of death—stops him. “I sing for those who dare not sing – or have forgotten how,” says the rooster, who asks the mayor: “If I must sing for them as well, señor, how can I keep from singing?” Yelchin’s expressive, saturated illustrations, rendered in oil pastels, colored pencils, gouache, and acrylics, are both funny and stirring. This is a book to crow about, especially now.
Lastly—and I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, as it won’t be on shelves until April—is Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, who just this week was awarded a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for his illustrations in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom in Congo Square. This unusual biography begins in JFK’s boyhood and finishes with his death, but Corey takes a particular and fine-tuned look at his conviction with regard to the civil rights movement. Noting that he had once written (in Profiles of Courage) that courage is an “opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all,” she looks at the ways in which Kennedy, before and during his presidency, stood up for civil rights issues but also the ways in which he was slow to act, as she puts it – notably, just after the attack on the Freedom Riders when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested Kennedy write a second Emancipation Proclamation to make segregation illegal. “But Jack worried about losing the support of those in Congress who disagreed,” Corey writes. In her closing author’s note, she writes:
"Did John F. Kennedy misstep with civil rights? I was fascinated by the fact that with Profiles in Courage, Kennedy had literally written a book about leaders having the courage to stand by their beliefs even when it means going against popular opinion. And yet, when confronted with thorny political realities himself, Kennedy seemed to hesitate."
Should leaders be the change-makers? “Or is it regular citizens who create change, who start the conversation,” she asks. It’s a thoughtful set of questions in a well-crafted book that respects the complex president Kennedy was, respects child readers, and respects the sometimes thorny intricacies of conviction. Be sure to find a copy, come April.
And keep marching.
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.