Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:

I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.

We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.

Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.

I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)

If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.

I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)

One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.

Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.

At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.

At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”

In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.

 

For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”

The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.

For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:

a voice for women
who had none
in marriages
in courts
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
and angry
rising above injustice

Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.

As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.

At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:

I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.

Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.

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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?

 

Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

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Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.

What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened?

In the first 48 hours following the shocking results, I was unable to turn away from the news, inhaling every editorial or opinion piece that I could find—as if, taken together, all those words could fill the chasm that I felt breaking open inside me. Two common refrains did provide some element of sense-making—at the very least, something I could echo to my children: one, that many of the people who voted for our president-elect do not support his hateful rhetoric but did so because they or their communities are hurting in very real ways; and two, that with a country so vehemently divided, we have to start listening to one another if we are going to find a productive and peaceful way forward.

Eventually, though, the news just made my head hurt more. (I then went through a period of emotional eating, but we’ll leave that out…plus, it hasn’t completely ended and, come to think of it, I think I’m getting low on peanut butter ice cream…)

Ultimately, though—as has been true so many times in my life—it is books that are serving as my therapy, books that are giving me hope. In my alone time in the car, I am listening to Sissy Spacek’s beautiful recording of To Kill a Mockingbird and taking heart in everything that comes out of the mouth of Atticus Finch. Immediately following the election, I read to the kids Debbie Levy’s new picture book biography, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, mostly so I could reassure myself that there are still people in power fighting for decency and justice. Then, over the weekend, the kids and I cozied up and rejoiced in Ratpunzel, the latest in the deliciously feminist “Hamster Princess” series, because, well, escapist therapy feels pretty great right now.

But the most fortuitous book-related turn of events came when the kids and I stumbled upon a collection of books about the very heroes from our past who can inspire us to stand up in our future. These are true stories that address many of the very prejudices and injustices that I believed were mired in our country’s past, but which I am now painfully aware were not all that deeply buried after all.

As kismet would have it, last week’s election was immediately followed by the arrival of our Scholastic mail-order books, which my kids have been eagerly anticipating ever since they turned in their orders at school a few weeks ago (the newsprint circulars from Scholastic are another thing that has not changed in this country).

I had been pleasantly surprised when my six year old originally picked out a “starter set” of five titles in Brad Meltzer’s “Ordinary People Change the World” series, seeing as she has shown zero interest in biographies to date (or, if I’m being honest, in most non-fiction). Of course, she’s exactly the reader that Meltzer intended to target when he decided to introduce historical figures through conversation, cartoons, and a child-centric view of the world, in such titles as I am Abraham Lincoln, I am Rosa Parks, I am Albert Einstein, I am Jackie Robinson, and I am Amelia Earhart. (In less than a week, we have since added I am Jane Goodall, I am Martin Luther King Jr., I am George Washington, and I am Helen Keller to our collection. And I am Lucille Ball and I am Jim Henson are on our list.)

If I was originally surprised by my daughter’s selection, I am even more surprised that, in the days following our initial reading of the first five books, my daughter has carried them everywhere. She reads them in the bathroom. She reads them at night by flashlight. And, since she can’t actually read, she asks me to read them aloud to her again and again.

I am even more surprised that my third grader has stopped what he’s doing—every single time—to look over our shoulders as we read them. As if he too can’t get enough. He even took three to bed with him last night.

I am even more surprised by how animated and excited I become while reading these books, as if optimism—and not outrage or heartbreak—is raining down upon us for a few precious minutes.

I am even more surprised that I’m saying this about these particular books. Because I have, admittedly, been slow to get on the bandwagon of Brad Meltzer’s popular series, which launched almost three years ago. There’s much about Christopher Eliopoulus’ illustrations—the oversized heads, the gaping black mouths, the blunt backgrounds—that I initially mistook for crude (the adult-in-a-kid’s-body still kind of freaks me out). I preferred reading about Einstein through the sublime art of On a Beam of Light, or Lincoln through the abstract palette of Looking for Lincoln. But, of course, my six year old doesn’t.

So, while I’ve recommended the “Ordinary People Change the World” series to schools, even brought them into my kids’ classrooms from the library, I never really saw them as worthy to own. Of course, I hadn’t ever sat down and read one cover to cover. Until now.

Now, I get it. Because Meltzer’s writing is utterly captivating. The choice to write in the first person is unique (“It’s like I’m hearing their real voices, Mommy!”), and the choice to directly address the child reader makes it impossible to look away.

Each book is a living and breathing example of what it looks like to stand up for what you believe, to stand up for what you love, to stand up for what is right. Each book showcases obstacles that had to be overcome, nay-sayers that had to be denied, and courage that had to be summoned. Each book demonstrates the way in which determination, combined with hard work, a hefty dose of creativity, and serious guts, fuels ordinary people to make the extraordinary happen.

It turns out that Eliopoulus’ blend of cartoons and comics perfectly complements the tone of the narrative, heightening the indignance of the voices, the unfairness of the situations, and the celebration of expectations overturned. As a bonus, his pictures lend humor to many of the pages (and if there’s one thing that will get my youngest interested in history, it’s humor).

When Rosa Parks talks about how she used to wonder if rainbows would come out of the “colored” drinking fountains—the ones that were outside and around the building from the “white only” fountains—we want to reach through the page and hold her little hand.
"I am Rosa Parks" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

When the character of Jackie Robinson confides to the child reader about bravery, we lean in to listen. Jackie was not by most definitions a brave kid: “In fact, as a kid, I didn’t like sleeping alone. I used to sleep in my mom’s bed. Even when she tried to bribe me, I wouldn’t leave.” And yet, years later, his passion for baseball—and for winning at baseball—led him to persevere against all odds, despite pitchers throwing fastballs at his head and catchers spitting on his shoes and letters that threatened to hurt his family.

"I am Jackie Robinson" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

These books are much more sophisticated than I presumed at first glance—scintillating for a kindergartener, yet still plenty meaty at 30-40 pages for a third and fourth grader. Neither do they shy away from hard truths. In I am Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln watches as a boat sails down the Ohio river carrying slaves chained to one another (“I didn’t do anything that day, but for years, the memory of those people…it haunted me.”).

"I am Abraham Lincoln" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

In I am Martin Luther King Jr., many of the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement—and the violent reactions they sometimes spurred—are vividly brought to life, including the Children’s Crusade (“The chief of police told the firemen to spray the children with water hoses and attack them with dogs.”).

"I am Martin Luther King, Jr." by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

Defiance comes in many forms. Both my kids were fascinated to learn that General George Washington used invisible ink and code names to draw up plans that the British couldn’t read (“How’d we win? We were smarter. We were sneakier. We were fighting for a cause. For freedom!”).
"I am George Washington" by Brad Meltzer & Christoper Eliopoulos

Helen Keller, mocked for her “dumbness” and initially told she couldn’t attend college—even after she had taught herself to speak—went on to fight for the access of public universities for all people, regardless of disabilities. Because activism breeds activism, she also went on to become a suffragist, an early advocate for free speech, and a fighter for equal rights for black Americans. And she did so by making sure that she met with every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson (“But let’s be honest. They met her.”)

"I am Helen Keller" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

Jane Goodall’s love for the planet and the animals with whom we share that planet feels especially poignant right now; and the undeniable cuteness of the chimps in I am Jane Goodall doesn’t hurt. (“Listen to the feelings in your heart. We are responsible for the animals around us. We must take care of them. When one of us is in trouble—be it human, creature, or nature itself—we must reach out and help.”)

"I am Jane Goodall" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

It’s hard to say how much my daughter understands about this presidential election and its ramifications. Probably not a whole lot. In the 48 hours that followed, while her older brother was busy listing off organizations that we should give money to and describing signs he wants to make for the yard (Peace for All), Emily just kept asking, “Can’t they have a do-over?”

But I wonder if, perhaps on some subconscious level, she was drawn to these books because they carry with them a note of hope in a time that feels dangerously close to listing toward hopelessness. Children don’t have to understand the particulars about our government to pick up on the uncertainty and uneasiness that exists in the air right now. These books reassure us of the greatness in our country and across the world, of the resiliency of mankind, and of the potential for one person to make a difference.

Each of Meltzer’s biographies closes with a call to action, an encouragement to stand up in the name of human dignity. One of the most fitting passages, given our current social climate, comes out of the mouth of Rosa Parks (via Brad Meltzer).

In my life, people tried to knock me down.
Tried to make me feel less than I was. They teased
me for being small. Being black. Being different.
Let me be clear: No one should be able to do that.
But if they try, you must stand strong.
Stand for what’s right.
Stand up for yourself (even if it means sitting down).

Brad Meltzer needs to write a whole lot more of these books—and FAST. I hope to see an even greater diversity of races, religions, and sexual orientations represented in the people he decides to profile. I promise you, we are going to read every single one. Multiple times.

If I can encourage my children to bear witness to these acts of dismissal, hate, and bigotry on paper, then hopefully they will spot them in real life, too. If the language for talking about these acts already exists in their lexicon, then hopefully they will not shy away from speaking out, not only when the time is right, but every time it’s right.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

With these small books, our children (and us) have an opportunity to climb inside different slices of history, to witness how activism can take a multitude of brave and peaceful forms, and to perhaps even feel some of the bewilderment, outrage, thoughtfulness, and determination of ordinary people who spoke up and acted out to change the world.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Facing the Past to Better the Future (A Book Club Post)

June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. TaylorLike many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.

But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.

“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.

How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves?

How do we ensure our children will grow up in a country that celebrates differences, instead of condemns or even merely tolerates them? How do we ensure our children won’t make the same mistakes that generations of their forbearers did—and which some of their contemporaries are dangerously close to repeating?

In the midst of this unsettling time, I am once again reminded of the small but not insignificant power that we as parents have in what we choose to read with our children. Our time with them as willing listeners may be fleeting, but it is time that is immensely valuable. When we read to our children, we shape the way in which they see the world. We encourage them to ask questions of themselves and of others. And we give them a working vocabulary to navigate the undeniably treacherous terrain of life.

This past spring, I had the privilege of leading a book club with some of the children in my son’s elementary class on a book that made an indelible impression on me as a child—and which today, even as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, feels as valuable as ever.

Mildred D. Taylor’s 1976 novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Ages 10-15, possibly younger if reading aloud), tells the story of a black family’s perseverance amidst the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi in the early 1930s. Told through the eyes of the nine-year-old daughter, the story is also a coming-of-age one, as Cassie trades the innocence of her youth for a sobering understanding of the way in which race so narrowly defines her family’s place in the world.

In writing this book and the sequels that follow, Taylor set out to put down on paper the various stories that her father and other family members had passed down to her about their childhood in the South—living at a time when blacks were no longer enslaved, but were “still not free.”

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder addresses a part of our country’s past that has often been kept quiet. In writing the book, Taylor did more than simply catalog her family’s oral histories. She dared to write outside the history books. She dared to tell the kinds of stories that had been deliberately withheld from textbooks; and in doing so, she gave the world a deeper, fuller, truer portrait of the southern American experience.

You want to motivate kids to tackle a book whose reading level might initially seem daunting, or whose cover might seem like it has nothing to do with their day-to-day reality? Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that people (not that long ago) went out of their way to keep secret. Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that many people—the very perpetrators of the kind of inhumanity exposed in these stories—would like to pretend never happened.

These children were every bit as shocked and spellbound by the novel as I remember being when I read it as a child.

And that is because this is MIND BLOWING stuff.

For starters, there’s the realization that the Logan children walk over an hour—usually barefoot on the dirt road—to get to their all-black school, while the children headed towards the white school tear by in school buses whose drivers purposely kick up mud in their wake.

There’s the descriptive contrast (which we sketched out together one week) of the white and black schools: one with manicured lawns and bleacher-framed athletic fields; the other with crabgrass checked by a roaming cow.

There’s the chilling scene that commences when Cassie’s teacher makes a big fanfare of presenting each member of the class—for the first time in the history of the school—with his or her own reader. Cassie and her brother’s excitement is quickly tainted when they open the readers and learn by the ledgers inside the cover that they are actually twelfth in line to use the books—and that their turn has only come because the white school has worn down the pages to the point of disintegration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the twelfth spot is labeled “nigra.”

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And this is all from the first chapter.

What follows goes well beyond poverty and offensiveness and cuts clear into injustice, emotional cruelty, and physical violence. Black adults in the novel face burning (“the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal”), tarring and feathering, and even death—all at the hands of white community leaders. The children in the book may be on the outskirts of such attacks; and yet, they face bullying of a different sort, like when Cassie is spit on and shoved into the street by an older white girl, after refusing to address her as Miz Lillian Jean.

I’ll admit that, several times early on in the book club, there were moments when I questioned whether I had overstepped in my book selection. These were largely eight and nine year olds, while Roll of Thunder is probably more appropriately suited for eleven and twelve year olds. The vocabulary is challenging, the sentence structure complex, and on top of that there’s Southern dialect. Most significantly, there is graphic and upsetting subject matter, including offensive language. Were these children ready for this? Were they even capable of understanding it?

Since the book was first published, Roll of Thunder has been criticized and even banned in various communities, particularly in the South, for—among other things—its use of the word nigger. In the new forward to the book, Taylor defends her work: “My stories will not be ‘politically correct’…as we all know, racism is offensive.”

The benefit of reading a book like this in the context of a book club or at home with parents is that it allows for controlled, guided discussions. Early on, the children and I looked up the history of the word nigger: its derivation from the word Negro—a word initially keyed by black intellectuals out of pride and respect for an African heritage—and its bastardization in the hands of white supremacists. We had passionate debates as to whether it was appropriate to say the word in the context of sharing passages aloud from the book; some children remained steadfast in their vehemence that they would not utter the word in any context.

Despite the challenging reading level and upsetting content, week after week, the kids kept showing up.

Even more, they astounded me with their insight and their passion.

They would stop me around the neighborhood and update me on where they were in the reading, reminding me of how many days until our next meeting and asking if I was as shocked as they were about what was happening.

During book club, they would request to act out scenes, not only to audition their Southern accent, but also to make sense of various grown-up practices, like buying on credit, which play a key role in the novel’s politics.

They were fascinated by the cover—a stirring illustration by Kadir Nelson for the book’s 40th anniversary—and often speculated on Cassie’s thoughts, while simultaneously emulating her defiant arms-crossed stance.

On their own, they memorized the Negro spiritual from whence the book’s title is derived and which is cited several times as Cassie’s rallying cry. They chanted it in unison as I walked into the room one week, their voices drumming together in a steady beat, their fists pounding on the table in emphasis.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

How do I account for this kind of enthusiasm and engagement?

One word: Cassie.

By casting Cassie as the heart and soul of the story, Taylor gives the child reader a kindred spirit, one who transcends skin color or experience with prejudice. At the end of the day, Cassie is a nine-year-old child. She is fiercely protective of her siblings and deeply loyal to her self-respecting and determined family. She questions everything that is happening around her, and her unwavering sense of justice will feel familiar to any elementary child. She is both afraid and brave.

There are many other well-developed and relatable characters in the book—including Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, who was another favorite with my group—but it is through Cassie’s raw, innocent, inquisitive eyes that we are drawn firsthand into this very ugly side of American history.

Still, do not misunderstand me. Amidst the ugliness, there are plentiful moments of beauty, hope, and courage throughout the novel. There are the ways—many of them quiet and subversive, born out of cleverness as opposed to physical violence—that the different members of the Logan family wield power in the community, asserting their rights and enlisting others in the fight.

There is the love—and the deep, deep tenderness—that the Logans have for one another and the ways in which the older generation embeds in the younger ones the sacredness of family history, a reverence for the earth, and a way to preserve human dignity at all costs.

In reaction to a particularly upsetting demonstration of white power in the book, one of the book club members burst into tears and said she wished she wasn’t white. I realized we needed to take a step back and refrain from falling ourselves into the trap of vilifying an entire group of people because of their race.  And so we spent the next twenty minutes talking about the white characters in the book who do respect their black neighbors, who go out of their way to offer friendship, and who even at times speak out against others who oppose their views. It is actions, not skin color, that should command our attention and judgment.

On another day, we watched a contemporary video about the pitfalls of labels, be they race or religion or gender related. Then we watched it again.

One of the most profound realizations of the entire book club came on the heels of one of the most surprising chapters in the novel, when Cassie—after spending weeks submitting to Lillian Jean in an effort to earn her trust—lures Lillian Jean into the woods and beats her up. Some of the children admitted to being as duped by Cassie’s intentions as Lillian Jean herself, although all agreed that they figured out what was happening long before Lillian Jean did. I argued that Lillian Jean’s bewilderment at being “turned on” by Cassie is especially interesting, in light of the fact that Lillian Jean has gone out of her way to insult Cassie for most of her life.

“Why should it come as such a shock to her that Cassie would want to be mean back?” I asked the children.

There was a long pause, and then one child spoke up: “I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think Lillian Jean thought she was being mean all those times. I think she thought she was doing what everyone else like her was supposed to be doing.”

Another child jumped in: “It’s like her parents and all the other adults in her life have always been telling her, ‘you have to be mean to black people,’ ‘black people aren’t the same as us,’ and so she just thinks that’s how it is.”

And another: “It’s like my name. My parents have always called me by my name, so I know that it’s my name. If someone tried to tell me it wasn’t my name, I wouldn’t even believe them.”

May I remind you that these children are only eight and nine years old?! Oh, the wisdom that can be unearthed in our children! Because, of course, they are exactly right about the power of brainwashing, of the power that we as parents possess in the way we teach our children about the world.

After we finished the book, as we wrapped up our final meeting, I told the children I had two questions.

“Would you like to be friends with Cassie?”

The unanimous, affirmative shouts were so loud that they likely carried out to the street.

“If Cassie came over to your house for dinner, what would you want to ask her?”

Several of the children immediately responded that they would ask her how she felt about things that happened in the book—particularly during the nail-biting events of the final pages.

One girl was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, “I don’t think I would like to ask her about anything that already happened. I would like to ask her how she is enjoying the rest of her life.”

I continue to be struck by this statement—by the generosity and kindness and optimism that it reflects. (Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance to plug Mildred Taylor’s sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken.)

We all want to believe that things will get better. We all want to believe that, like the Logan family, we will do everything in our power to see that it does.

Right now, our children are still so young—still so innocent in the way they see the world. And yet, what they see and hear and read is beginning to open their eyes wider. With this widening comes not just power but responsibility: what they do with that power will depend on what examples of leadership we continue to share with them.

Let our children always have characters like Cassie to inspire them to stand up for what is right and just, to resist the danger of lumping groups together with labels, and to celebrate the rainbow of colors and individuality around them.

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Review copy by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

The Right to Vote

February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah WinterWith such a heated presidential election upon us, voting has been a popular topic of conversation in our house. My eight year old is trying to make sense of the candidate names he has heard; and he repeatedly asks my husband and I who we “want to win” this November, convinced with that blind, beautiful eight-year-old innocence that his parents’ choice must be the right one. (I’m tempted to blow his mind by telling him that his dad and I might each want someone different.)

The right to vote may be one that many of us Americans take for granted today (much like trying on shoes at a store—see last year’s post for Black History Month); and yet, it also seems to inspire a certain awe in our children. Or at least it did in me when I was young. My mother would take me along when she voted in major elections. We’d wait in line, hand in hand, and then part of me would cringe in betrayal when at last it was her turn and she would pull the curtain closed around the voting booth, leaving her on one side and me on the other. I would strain to see her shadow beneath the curtain, trying to make heads or tails of what she was doing in there. “Can’t I come in with you?” I’d lament. “Isn’t it unsafe to leave me out here all alone?” I’d try. But her answer was always the same: “Voting is private. What I do in here is nobody’s business but my own.” That night, I’d try harassing my father: “But you did vote for who you said you were going to, right?” “That’s for me to know,” my dad would reply, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly.

Each time I vote, I think of the reverence that I attached to the voting process from such an early age. I wear my “I Voted!” sticker proudly. I talk to my children about how exciting it feels to cast my vote, to have a say in the rules-making of our country; and I take them with me when I can. And yet, I want them to understand that, while we have called ourselves a democracy for centuries, the history surrounding voting in this country has often been hypocritical, unjust, and deeply painful. For poor white men who didn’t own property. For women. For Native Americans. For African Americans. And for countless other marginalized groups across our history.

Browsing our local bookstore a few weeks ago, I quickly fell in love with Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans’ new picture book, Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Ages 6-12); and my excitement only grew after sharing it with my children. Written on the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson signing into law the Voting Rights Act—which for the first time in history ensured that the voting rights of African Americans were protected by federal law—the book opens with a 100-year-old black woman on her way to vote. As she climbs the (literally) steep hill to the polling center, she reflects on the (metaphorically) steep hill that her people have climbed to get to this point, connecting her own family history with pivotal events in American history.

What I love most about this book—apart from Winter’s soaring prose and Evans’ emotionally charged mixed-media illustrations—is the compelling chronological presentation. It reads as a kind of lyrical—albeit highly abridged—timeline of black history in America (and what elementary child doesn’t love a good timeline?). Recently, it struck me that, while we may talk to our children about historical time periods, like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, we usually do so in isolation. Just a few weeks ago at dinner, the topic of the Civil War came up. JP blurted out, “Mommy, the slaves must have been so happy when the war ended and they knew they were free.” I paused. “Well, let’s talk about that,” I said. And then we discussed what it was like to start a life with no money, no rights, no job, no education, and little to no respect, until JP said, “Oh, right, because all that was before the Civil Rights Movement.” A light bulb had gone off. Connections. Bringing together what we have learned: this is our job as parents and educators, and books can be among our greatest tools.

Lillian is a fictional character, although the Afterward at the end of the book reveals that she is inspired by an actual woman named Lillian Allen, granddaughter of a slave, who not only voted at age 100 for Barack Obama, our first African American president, but also passionately campaigned to encourage others to vote during that time.

This is where I have to pause to sing the praises of the book’s cover. How often do we see an elderly person depicted in children’s books, much less on the cover? My five-year-old daughter is fascinated with old people. She is fortunate to have two living great-grandmothers, and one of them was just here at Christmas. A few days after she left, Emily announced, “Great Gock is my favorite person in the family. She is so, so, so wise, because she has lived for practically forever, and can I tell you something? I don’t think she’s ever going to die.”
"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane E. Evans

When we gaze at Lillian—and oh, the art is beautiful—we see dark creases across her face, silvery white hair, and long bony fingers. Her very body exudes age. And history. And wisdom. Lillian’s journey through the ghosts of history begins at a time when only rich white men were allowed to vote. It begins with a vision of her great-great-grandparents, standing on an auction block, holding their baby and waiting to be sold into slavery. The art is staggering and horrifying at the same time: the man is completely naked, his wrists bound. Here, as on every page, there is just enough text to invite an older child’s questions and initiate discussion with a trusting adult—yet not enough to confuse or frighten off younger ones. My eight year old wanted to talk about every single thing he noticed. My five year old just listened and took things in. That’s typical for where they both are.

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

We then meet Lillian’s great grandfather, Edmund, who grows up in slavery and witnesses both the end of the Civil War and the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which says that Americans can no longer be denied the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition to servitude.” Edmund’s wife goes with him to the polling place—except that she, being a woman, cannot vote. Cue more discussion.

But a happy ending for all black men? Not at all. Here’s where things start to get fascinating, especially if you are a child who assumes that just because the law decrees something, it must be true. Lillian reflects on her grandfather, who twenty years later is charged an exorbitant poll tax that he can’t possibly pay. He is denied his chance at voting. And then there’s Lillian’s uncle Levi, who at a polling booth is asked outrageous questions—like “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”—and then turned away when he can’t come up with an adequate answer. “But how could anyone figure that out?!” JP shouted out in horror. (Indeed.)

And then there’s Lillian’s own experience: first, as a little girl, being driven away by an angry mob when she goes with her mother to register to vote in 1920, after the Nineteenth Amendment has been passed to allow women the right to vote. That same mob later that night sets fire to a cross on her parents’ lawn (“something she will always see”), a signal to them that they—by nature of their skin color—are somehow outside the laws that promise to protect them.

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

Years later, as a young woman, Lillian attempts to register to vote and is tested on the US Constitution, asked to write from memory word for word, a test that one again virtually no one could pass.

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

These injustices don’t just blow my children’s minds. They blow my mind. How could so many officials, so many cities, so many states, have gotten away with turning their backs on the law, with interpreting it to further their own bigotry? We watch as our children trust in things bigger than themselves—in systems and laws and figures of authority—but what happens when all that comes crashing down? How do we show them that they can stand up for themselves amidst this kind of adversity?

The Civil Rights Movement is one brilliant, though at times exceedingly brutal, answer. As Lillian walks up the hill to vote in 2015, she remembers the thousands who put one foot in front of the other through rain and wind to protest peacefully the unlawful and inhumane obstacles denying African Americans the right to vote. The three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery are discussed, culminating in President Johnson’s famous speech, which echoed the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: All of us…must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. (Check out this older post about another chronologically organized book, which highlights the role of the “We Shall Overcome” lyrics in human rights history.)

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

At last, as per the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guarantees every American citizen the right to vote, Lillian herself is finally able to cast a poll, to make her voice heard alongside white, black, rich, poor, male, female, and everything in between. We watch as Lillian—fifty years later and now one hundred years old—remembers that moment in 1965, standing before the voting booth. Her younger, more elegant self is juxtaposed against her older, now stooped body, an arresting visual that reminds us how we take our former selves with us, folding them into ourselves and holding on to the memories that have made us who we are.

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

We are by this point so emotionally invested in Lillian’s story that it almost takes our breath away to turn to the final page, where we find a hand with a single outstretched finger hovering over a depressed lever. One simple movement, loaded with meaning and history and significance.

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans

It was a long uphill battle to get here, and this lovely book gives our children a small taste of what that means. Those old enough to digest the Afterward, however, will learn that this is by no means the end of the struggle. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in the process, opened the door for individual states to mandate different voting requirements, including state-issued IDs, which are often prohibitively difficult for the poor and elderly to obtain. The book asks, will our children’s generation rise and continue the fight to protect this most basic and sacred of American rights? We can start by taking our children to the polls with us this November.

Creative Activism (In Honor of Black History Month)

February 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. LewisLast spring, I took my then three year old daughter shopping for shoes. It was a rainy Saturday, we had just come from her first early morning soccer practice (to which she had worn rain boots), and with plenty of time to kill before lunch, I figured we’d hunt down some sensible, sports-worthy sneakers. As we stepped, hand in hand, through the automatic doors and into the giant monstrosity that is Rack Room, it occurred to me that I had never taken her shopping before. I was feeling a little giddy.

We soon found ourselves standing before towering steel shelves, endless rows filled with mix-matched boxes of child-sized sneakers. “Let’s see,” I said, pulling down a Nike box with a pair of bright turquoise Velcro sneakers. “How about these?”

There was a squeal. “Mommy, look! These ones over here have PRINCESSES on them!” “Oh, wait! Look at that girl over there: she’s got on shoes that LIGHT UP! Those are the ones! Those are the ones I want!”

I started to panic. Oh right, this is why I have never taken her shopping. Why did I forsake my precious Zappos for this place?! As the steel walls and high-pitched whining began to close in on me, I made a quick decision.

“OK, honey, here’s what we’re going to do. You can try on every pair of shoes that you want. Take your time. You can walk all around the store in whatever shoes you want. But when it comes time to leave, we are only going to buy one pair, and it’s going to be a sneaker that Mommy thinks will be good for running. It’s going to be a good, sensible shoe that fits you well. But for now, have at it.”

The girl tried on shoes for two. straight. hours.

Like a kid in a candy store, Emily tried on glitter sneakers and light-up sneakers and sneakers with Disney characters. She tried on lace-up sneakers and Velcro sneakers; black sneakers for boys and rainbow-covered sneakers for girls. She’d point to a box, I’d pull it down, and we’d work together to get the shoes on and off. Sometimes she’d put on a pair for two seconds, sometimes she’d wear one while walking up and down every aisle, and sometimes she changed her mind before the sneakers ever got out of the box.

In the end, we left the store—Emily proudly carrying a bag with the original turquoise Nikes that I had picked out.

This story has approached something of Legend status in our house. “Mommy,” my son will beg, “tell the story of how Emily tried on every shoe in the store!” And I do. And we roll our eyes and chuckle. Even Emily.

But then, recently, one day after school, as the three of us splayed across the couch reading an account of what happened in one Alabama city during the Civil Rights Movement, our shoe story took on a whole new meaning. Because, you see, it had never occurred to any of us that, regardless of which shoes we bought on that rainy day back in April, the mere act of trying them on had been in itself a right. With each shoe that Emily tried on, she was unknowingly exercising a personal freedom—one for which others had once been forced to fight.

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama (Ages 6-12), written by Hester Bass and beautifully illustrated by E.B. Lewis, chronicles both the small and large events that occurred in this unique Alabama city between January 1962 and September 1963. The book opens with a painting of an African-American girl in an Alabama shoe store. She is seated in a chair, holding up a piece of paper with the outline of her feet traced in black marker. “A girl carries paper pictures of her feet because she won’t be able to try on shoes.” This is the child reader’s introduction to the racial segregation still deeply rooted across the South in the 1960s, despite Civil Rights Acts passed by the American government as early as 1866, and despite the growing momentum created from activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

But the story that follows is one of integration, not segregation. Only it’s not your typical integration story. Contrary to much of what our children will hear about the Civil Rights Movement, the transition from segregation to integration in Huntsville, Alabama—while certainly not a smooth one—was characterized by a surprising absence of violence: no riots, no tanks, no bombs. This would not have been possible without the commitment of both black and white citizens, who ultimately chose to put the health and economic viability of their city above their personal and cultural differences.

Hester Bass, herself a former resident of Huntsville, does an exceptional job of drawing us into the details of what went down in those twenty months. It’s hard not to argue that many of these events displayed sheer creative genius on the part of the African-American community. Yes, there were marches, and yes there were sit-ins at lunch counters, neither dissimilar to what was happening throughout the rest of the South. But, in Huntsville, some black women got “tricky” and started bringing swaddled infants to these sit-ins, because “it’s hard to keep it quiet when a baby goes to jail.” Huntsville was at the time the proud center of the US Space Program, the headquarters of American rocket construction in the quest to put a man on the moon. Dependent on government aid, and the target of high-profile visits from President Kennedy, the city could not afford bad press (like putting babies behind bars)—and people on both sides of the racial divide knew it.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

The African-American community in Huntsville began to assert their presence in other ways, too, like launching hundreds of colorful balloons outside the courthouse, each tied with notes like, “Please support freedom in Huntsville.”

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Perhaps the most creative strategy was the implementation of Blue Jean Sunday. Traditionally, Easter was cause for the black community to spend a lot of money on new clothing—in some cases as much as a hundred dollars for a special outfit—and the predominantly white shop owners had come to depend on that revenue. In 1962, black leaders in Huntsville quietly urged men, women, and children to don jeans in place of store-bought clothes for Easter services. “They will stand up for freedom by dressing down.” Some people think Huntsville merchants lost a million dollars that spring.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Talk about using your brain! Talk about putting your imagination to work! Can you think of a more inspiring example of effective non-violent protest?

And it worked! It really worked. First, the Huntsville restaurants, hospitals, bowling alleys, and movie theaters began to desegregate. Then, come September 1963, after a rocky first week of locked doors and police intimidation, a six-year-old boy became the first black student to attend a previously all-white public school. Across town, a private religious school boasted the first incidence of reverse integration in the South, when twelve white students joined a formerly all-black classroom.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Sure, Huntsville had some extenuating circumstances that other Southern cities lacked (like the Space Program), but still: there was willingness, there was courage, there was a priority of peace on both sides of the racial divide, and that in itself is amazing. I could not get through reading this book without constantly setting it down to exclaim, I cannot believe I never knew about this! This is unbelievable. This is SO COOL. And the best part was: my seven-year-old son was equally riveted. (In all fairness, Emily asked some good questions, too, although the subject matter is definitely geared toward an elementary-aged audience.)

Like most of the best children’s books about race and history, Seeds of Freedom is one that begs to be read aloud and discussed. In our house, it has furthered conversations that we began back with Martin’s Big Words and We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song; and I hope it will lay groundwork for more challenging books, like the newly-published Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, a first-person account of a teenage girl protester, jailed nine times in the Civil Rights Movement and beaten on Sunday Bloody Sunday (talk about mind-blowing).

It seems to me that, regardless of our racial backgrounds, as twenty-first-century Americans, it is not only our responsibility but our privilege to have these discussions with our children. We have a unique chance to honor history both by encouraging our children to ask questions and by making visible our own commitment to learning alongside them. Even in these modern times, there is plenty of necessity for change—for activism—and I’d like to think that there are creative, non-violent solutions to the racial and cultural differences that continue to divide our everyday lives. I’d like to think a book like this will not only remind my children that the mere act of trying on shoes in a store is itself a personal liberty, but that they hold within their imaginations the power to change the world.

Other Favorites About Activism in the Civil Rights Movement:
We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, by Debbie Levy & Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Ages 5-10; discussed here)
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea David Pinkney (Ages 6-12)
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, by Carole Boson Weatherford & Jerome Lagarrigue (Ages 6-12)
Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges (Ages 8-12)
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (Ages 10-15)

Review copy courtesy of Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among us white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them.

It is worth noting one exception. In today’s bookstores, racial diversity is most evident in picture books that are concerned, not with a story about an individual, but with a broad, sweeping depiction of urban life. Books like Water in the Park (discussed here) and In the Town All Year Round (discussed here) do a fine job of representing people of different skin colors “as an integral and valued part of the mosaic” (to borrow Myers’ words), in which kids are growing up today. But, let’s be honest: from the standpoint of the publishers and the booksellers, this is a safe route to take; these harmonious covers show white children alongside those of color. In other words, they are still seen by white buyers as relatable.

Which leads me to my own question. I wonder if we as parents play a larger role than we realize in the scant publication of books starring individuals of color. Are we unknowingly standing in the way of our children seeing and identifying with the communities around them? When I read Myers’ piece last week, I immediately thought of my initial reaction to the uplifting new picture book, A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper (Ages 4-10). The story is about a poor black girl, living in mid-twentieth century Harlem, who longs to be a ballerina. Dempsey and Cooper have loosely based their book on those, like our young, wide-eyed heroine, who had the opportunity to watch Janet Collins’ debut as the first African-American ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951.

When I first paged through the book at my local bookshop, I got goose bumps from the sheer lyricism of the language. Certainly, a story-told-in-poems format seems perfectly matched to subject matter about dance and transcendence; but what really struck me is how this beautiful, buoyant language contrasts the daily struggle of the girl and her single mother—a mother who works days and nights as a laundress and seamstress, but a mother who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice a new sewing machine in order to give her daughter a glimpse of what her promising future might hold. The moments leading up to the performance are breathlessly described through the daughter’s eyes:

Waiting now
for the bus,
my feet won’t stop
their trippy-trappy,
jumpin’ jiggle,
can’t-hardly-wait wiggle.

But then I fell directly into the trap. I thought, “I have to bring this book into JP’s school!” I immediately categorized it as “a book with a lesson” (race! poverty! history!). I didn’t buy the book, but instead took a picture of its cover and requested it from the library, as I do the other books I bring into my son’s elementary classroom. Once I classified it as such, it never occurred to me to share it with my three-and-a-half year old daughter, who loves dancing as much as she loves snuggles and pizza and playing with her brother.

And yet, who ended up going through my pile of books by the door and picking out this one for story time? “Mommy, look! This one is about a ballerina!” I started to say that this story was intended for older kids, but I stopped myself when I saw her sheer delight upon flipping through the subdued, grainy paintings, in hues of browns and pinks, each one filled with longing and sadness and wonder and joy. And so I read it. And then I read it again. And again. And I saw that I had been grossly mistaken. Yes, this is a book with a powerful and important message about breaking down racial barriers. But it is also about a little girl with a passion; about a mother who loves her; about the awe that we all feel in the presence of art. It is also about something that every single child, regardless of race or class or background, feels at one point or another—and that’s the inner stirrings of hope. Or, in our narrator’s words:

Hope
puffs up my chest
just a bit.
One day,
those voices
will be
for me.

As Walter Dean Myers fervently reminds us, books starring children of color or children of lower economic classes are critical to the identity formation of those individuals (not to mention their interest in reading). Equally important, however, is that these stories, especially the ones about everyday triumphs and failures, find their way into the hands of the broader population as well. Our children are not nearly as literal as we often assume them to be. They aren’t born seeing the world in black and white. They are born with a natural ability to connect as human beings. And books are a great place to nurture these connections. But we need to make them accessible to our children. And we need to spend money on them—in order that there will be more published every year.

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