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.

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