All The Awards for This One, Please (and a Jump on Black History Month)
January 26, 2023 § 2 Comments
Get ready to roll out the red carpet! The kid lit world is abuzz with the anticipation of the Youth Media Awards, which will be announced by the American Library Association this coming Monday. One of the frontrunners for multiple awards, including the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, not to mention the Coretta Scott King Award, is a picture book aimed at imparting a piece of devastating, powerful, and essential American history to elementary and middle school children—as well as to the parents and teachers that will hopefully share it with them. That it does so with unique artistry, searing lyricism, and the pulsating refrain of love is what distinguishes Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (ages 8-12), written by Angela Joy, with artwork by debut illustrator, Janelle Washington, among its fellow 2022 contenders.
I was impressed with the book even before I read it aloud to my kids and husband earlier this week. But after speaking the poetic text aloud, after taking time to appreciate the motifs in the illustrations, after noting the questions that arose and the reflection that followed, I was floored. Actually, I was floored as much by what I gained in that moment as by what I had been missing.
As was the case Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, a picture book that pulled in multiple awards last year, the experience of sharing Choosing Brave with my family was another stark reminder of the profound gaps in my own knowledge of Black history.
I was eleven years old when Black History Month was formalized. Even then, my education was cursory at best. Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman were taught alongside discussions of slavery. Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and MLK were the only headliners I heard in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement. I’m fairly positive The Great Migration wasn’t on my radar at all. Certainly not things like racial passing, until my good friend started writing her dissertation on it. Before last year, I thought the Tulsa Race Massacre concerned a running race.
It wasn’t until 2018, when I read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ middle-grade novel, Ghost Boys, that I began to think about the impact of the murder of Emmett Till, a name I previously associated only with tragedy. It wasn’t until Choosing Brave that I learned about the mother behind this fourteen-year-old boy. Here was someone who did something in her grief that was so smart, so courageous, that its ripple effects are still felt today. To leave these two—and countless others—out of our discussions of Black History is to deprive our country of a continued march towards progress. Especially when we’re still so far from the finish.
And so, for the umpteenth time, I am grateful for the children’s authors and illustrators who are telling these stories and telling them so well. These books are the best chance our children have for getting a robust history of this country—assuming their access to these stories isn’t restricted (and that’s no easy feat these days). But the best part? In partaking in these stories, our kids can bring us along for the ride.
(Linking a few past posts on Black History here, here, and here, while I’m feeling fired up.)
Let’s take a look at Choosing Brave, which clocks in at a whopping 64 pages and would deserve any accolades it receives next Monday, for words and art. Angela Joy’s evocative text, underscored with repetition, moves backwards and forward in time to tell a story of mother and son that’s much more than the tragedy at its heart. And Janelle Washington’s black cut-paper collages, notable for their silhouetted forms and strategically-placed pops of color, the latter created with tissue paper, assume an iconic, almost religious feel. (“I just had to pray and brave it,” Mamie Till Washington is quoted as saying in the book’s epigraph.) In fact, in a superior act of bookmaking, the pages themselves have a kind of waxy, glazy finish, giving the art the effect of stained glass in a church, at once confined and luminous.
“The boy they found was far from home,/ far from Mother and Grandmother.” The book’s opening lines fall on August 31, 1955, when Emmett’s body was found “in the mud of Mississippi.” Though the details won’t come until later in the book, we are introduced immediately to the act that would shake the country. While a sheriff sought to dig the grave right there, “where no one would see the boy’s suffering,” Mamie said, “No. You send my son home.”
It was the braver thing/ that changed everything.
The story then rewinds to introduce us to Mamie Till-Mobley, born Mamie Elizabeth Carthan, a child of the Great Migration, whose family eventually settles in “Argo, outside of Chicago,” where “a girl could roam free.” At eleven, she loses the first man in her life, when her father walks out and never returns. She would later lose her first husband and her only son.
Again and again, Mamie proves to be not just a survivor, but a fighter. The book credits her faith, work ethic, and an unflinching commitment to doing the right thing, even and especially when it’s hard. She takes refuge from stress in the discipline and predictability of her studies—“science, Latin, geometry, poetry”—and is the first African American to graduate at the top of her class.
Mamie gets her first taste of the discomfort inherent in challenging the status quo when the man who would become her husband takes her to a segregated ice cream parlor and plants them “right in the middle of all those white folks.” But it’s her difficult birth to Emmett—“bruised,/ scarred,/ swollen;/ he entered the world the hard way”—that is most prophetic of what’s to come. (These same adjectives are later used to describe Emmett’s dead body.) When the doctors tell Mamie the boy should be institutionalized, she fights to “bring her baby home. It was the harder thing.”
This is the first time we see an umbilical-type cord, often depicted with a heart, connecting mother and son. Janelle Washington employs a variation of this heartstring throughout the book, a visual testament to the unbreakable bond between Mamie and Emmett, even as the latter grows, even as he struggles, even as he boards that fateful train to Mississippi.
We get glimpses into Emmett’s childhood, from its joys to its challenges, including a near-fatal battle with polio that leaves him with a bad stutter. His mother is the one who finds a “work-around,” who teaches Emmett to whistle as a way to calm his mind enough to “finish what he started to say.” Again, there’s prophesy here, for it’s his alleged whistling in the presence of a white woman—in “a story that shifted over time” —that ignites the hatred in the white mob that kills him.
Given the young audience, and the fact that the book is oriented towards Mamie, graphic details of Emmett’s murder are largely spared. Instead, the focus is on Mamie’s decision to have the body brought home—“The land that killed him/ wouldn’t keep him”—and the casket opened, forcing the world to face what had been done to him. My children found it fascinating that the casket arrived from Mississippi locked with no key, its violence intended to be kept a secret. Once again, Mamie found a work-around.
We all teared up at this next part:
The haircut—still fresh from the barber.
The curve of ankle, strength of thigh.
The silver ring…his father’s silver ring.
Yes, that was Emmett, but only Mamie would know.
It would have “been easy” to “save her pain for privacy,” but for four days, Mamie allows visitors to bear witness to “the son erased for the sin of a sound.” The “alarm” sounded to reporters as well, who came and photographed the body, extending its reach, saying “more with a flash than ten thousand words” could. It was a “lit match” to a Civil Rights Movement “long-primed to blow,” inspiring Rosa Parks and so many others to stand (or sit) against racially motivated violence and injustice.
Choosing Brave could have ended there, but it doesn’t. It’s important for young readers to understand that, even though her son was taken from her, even though a trial would find Emmett’s killers innocent, Mamie would go on to channel her sorrow, her rage, her abiding love, into social justice work. She spoke at countless rallies, before going to back to school to get a teaching license so she could “help students no one else could reach.” She founded the Emmett Till Players and even found love again. She never stopped showing up for her community. And careful observers will notice the heartstring is still there.
The final pages of the book are a tribute to Mamie’s legacy, as well as a painful reminder that Black people continue to be on the receiving end of senseless violence in this country. Americans like George Floyd, Jr., Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, to name just a few listed in the book’s final spread.
I’d like to give Angela Joy the last word here by citing the paragraph with which she concludes her excellent Author’s Note, after providing more fascinating details about the lives of Mamie and Emmett:
Sadly, we’ve come to a place where there are too many modern-day victims to name, yet we grieve them all: men, women, and children who, instead of due process, received a death penalty for everyday living—for playing in the park; purchasing candy; walking down the street; hitchhiking; collecting cans; sleeping in their beds; eating at their tables; reaching for their wallets; listening to music; acting “strangely”; explaining themselves; waiting for a bus; waiting for an Uber; taking out the trash; selling cigarettes; holding a pipe, a drill, or a cell phone; and attending Bible study. May we remember their stories, say their names, and do all that we can to make “lists of the lost” obsolete.
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Book published by Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).
Amazing book! Amazing praise post! Thank you!
Thank you, Rita! So glad you agree!