Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson (9780374306106)
In this second middle grade novel by Shabazz, she this time focuses on her mother, Betty Shabazz, who would one day marry Malcolm X. Set during Betty’s childhood in the 1940s, this book explores Betty’s complicated relationship with the mother she was taken from at a young age. Betty was raised as a small child by an aunt but when the aunt died, Betty is moved from the south to Detroit, where she lives with her mother and her mother’s new family. The book focuses on faith and community activism as Betty learns how to make her way with a mother who doesn’t show love or affection to her at all. As Betty’s connection to the community grows stronger, she finds people who care for her. She eventually joins the Housewives League and fights to support black-owned businesses in Detroit. Even though the novel is about just a few years in her youth, readers will clearly see Betty’s growth from young girl to a civil rights leader.
Shabazz and Watson together have created a book that soars. They firmly anchor Betty’s life in the 1940’s, surrounding them with the music of the time, the societal expectations in that time period, and small touches that make sure readers understand the implications of the time period. They also depict the richness of the African-American community in Detroit, the women who led organizations and endeavors, the strength of friendships that are built together with church and community, and the hope that it created for change.
Throughout the book symbols of oppression continue to remind readers that the 1940s was not a simpler time. A very young Betty witnesses the bodies hanging in trees after a lynching in the south. In Detroit there are riots when an African-American boy is shot in the back by police. These events echo through to the present and the Black Lives Matter movement, showing that while progress has been made there is still much to do.
A strong book that looks with clarity at the making of a civil rights leader. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.
The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (9780545722889, Amazon)
La Paz is a village ringing with sound and singing; it’s noisy and bustling. But sometimes it’s a bit too loud, maybe some quiet would help. So the old mayor is sent away and a new mayor is elected. Don Pepe promises a quieter life, but his rules and laws start to become stifling and soon the village is silent. Then a rooster and his hen and chicks arrive. The rooster greets the day with a song right under the mayor’s window. As the mayor struggles to control one rooster and his singing by taking away more and more of his rights, the village begins to realize what they have given up.
Deedy, a Pura Belpre Honor winner for writing, has written a wonderfully readable tale that offers a folktale feel with a modern sensibility. This is exactly the picture book and fable that is needed in our society right now. It clearly speaks to the power of civil disobedience and the crucial need to even one voice to speak up, singing for themselves and the entire world.
Yelchin’s illustrations are rather zany, using bright colors and zigging lines. The rooster has a gorgeous nobility about him, piercingly straight and colorful on the page. He almost glows. In contrast, Don Pepe is colorless and drab, bringing gray onto the page along with him. His only change is to turn a sickly green as he is stood up to by the rooster.
Strong, vital and important, this picture book is a great pick to read aloud and discuss. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.
Martin’s Dream Day by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick (9781481467667)
This nonfiction picture book uses photographs by legendary White House photographer Tretick to show the story of Martin Luther King, Jr’s historic speech for civil rights. There is an appropriate reverential tone about the day as a whole, the size of the crowds and the speech itself. The book also shows the struggles that led up to the protest, the barriers that stood in the way of racial equality, and the people who stood up for change. While the focus is Martin Luther King Jr., there is also a strong acknowledgement for all of those who fought for civil rights in the United States.
Kelley’s text is straight forward and captures the importance of the day with a laser-like focus. She does use terms and words one rarely sees in picture books and ones that children may need explained to them. Still, this is a picture book probably best shared with an adult who can offer even more of a historical and modern context for the event and the day.
The photographs are simply incredible. It is amazing that one photographer was able to capture so many of them with the density of the crowds and the heat. They tell the story though images, speaking across time. The clothing styles may be vintage but the struggle mirrors that of today, something made all the more evident by the quality of the photographs that capture that same passion and engagement.
A strong piece of nonfiction for children who are living in today’s political environment with other marches surrounding them. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb
Billie Holiday had survived a rough childhood that saw her jailed at age 14 and become a successful jazz singer. Despite her success though, she was still forbidden to do things that her white band members were allowed. She had to hide in rooms, take freight elevators and pretend to be someone different in order to stay in hotels and not sleep on the tour bus. This was all dangerous and eventually she quit. She found a new place to sing in Cafe Society, the first jazz club that welcomed African-American audience members. It was there that she was given the song, Strange Fruit, a song that would become her best-known work. A song that was so powerful that it was met with silence the first time she sang it. A song that would come to speak to a new generation as they stand together today.
Golio has taken a song that is about lynching and turned it into a picture book. It’s a daring subject for a book for young readers, yet he makes it entirely understandable. He uses notes at the end of the book to continue Holiday’s story and also speak about lynching and its history in the United States. The bulk of the picture book is about Holiday’s struggles in the 1930s with pervasive racism and the way that this song spoke to her personal experience and that of all African-Americans.
The illustrations are deep and powerful. They show the pain of racism, the power of song, the energy of a performance and the drama of silence and darkness. Done in acrylic paint and tissue collage, they have a wild freedom of line that works well with the intense subject matter.
An important picture book about a song that has transcended generations and speaks to the struggles of today and yesterday. Appropriate for ages 7-11.
Reviewed from e-galley received from NetGalley and Lerner Publishing Group.
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (InfoSoup)
Released on January 31, 2017.
In 1955, Richard and Mildred fell in love in the countryside of Virginia, in Caroline County. Their neighborhood was special and people of all races congregated together. As they went to drive-in movies together and started spending time together, the larger community showed its prejudice since Richard was white and Mildred was African-American. The two of them could not attend dances together, even though Mildred’s family was playing the music at the dance. The two of them get married in 1958 in DC, but their marriage isn’t legal in Virginia. Eventually, they are thrown in jail even though Mildred is pregnant with their second child. The two of them are forced to move to DC and never return to see their families together for decades. As Mildred begins to reach out to lawyers to help, she writes to the ACLU who take up their case which becomes a landmark case for interracial marriage in front of the US Supreme Court.
Written in verse, this novel shows the courtship of Richard and Mildred, their lives together and the damage done by the initial judgement against them that forbade them to cross the border into Virginia together. The use of poetry as a format allows readers to see both Mildred and Richard’s points of view as their relationship grows, flourishes and then is challenged. The book inserts other important Civil Rights events in between the poetry, so that readers can keep an eye on the other changes happening in the United States. It’s an important piece of their story, showing that other changes came much faster than theirs.
The illustrations by Strickland are done in limited colors of oranges and blues. There are beautiful moments captured such as the two teens running through the woods together at night, silent and free. There are also bleak moments like being pulled over by the sheriff with a flashlight shining in their eyes. The illustrations move from freedom to constraint much in the way the story develops and are important in revealing emotional elements to the tale.
This verse novel tells the true story of Loving vs. Virginia and speaks to the importance of regular people standing up to unjust laws. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
The ACLU has just had its best fund raising month ever, so I know that others are concerned with civil rights being attacked just as much as I am. Happily, there are beautiful picture books on civil rights to share with the children in our lives:
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate
The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrations by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illlustrated by Brian Pinkney
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer:The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Bostone Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
We Troubled the Waters by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Rod Brown
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught (InfoSoup)
Dani’s grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s and is slowly reaching the end of her life cared for by Dani and her parents. So when her grandmother sends Dani on a mission to find a letter and key, Dani isn’t sure that it’s real. She discovers both the letter and key, then has to follow the trail of clues her grandmother left in her writing to discover the truth of a feud that her grandmother had with Avadelle Richardson, a novelist who wrote about a riot that happened at Ole Miss. It’s a riot that both Dani’s grandmother and Avadelle actually were caught up in. As Dani gets closer to the end of the trail, she finds more and more secrets and history and modern life begin to collide.
Vaught has written a taut novel that takes readers on a journey through Civil Rights history in Mississippi. Told through the eyes of Dani, the book is accessible to modern children and shows that racism is far from over. With our recent election, it is also a timely book that speaks to the deep-seated racism still at work in our country today. Vaught uses excerpts from Avadelle’s fictitious novel to show the historical context that the riot took place in. It does show how far we have come, but also speaks to how far we have to go.
The complex friendships of middle grade children are captured here, with Dani and her best-friend Indri sharing the adventure while her “not-friend” Mac, grandson of Avadelle continues to also be a part of it though at times the two are not speaking, just like their grandmothers. This modern division is a clever way to show how friendships change, shift and fall apart, something that mirrors what is seen in the novel and in the grandparents’ relationship.
A rich look at Civil Rights, racism and the decisions too big to be unmade, this novel is a timely look at today and our shared past. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
March: Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (InfoSoup)
This is the final book in this amazing graphic novel trilogy. Congressman John Lewis concludes his story of the Civil Rights marches, providing real context to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. This book begins with the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. It shows the fight for the ability to vote in Alabama for African Americans who were forced to take tests or just ignored as they tried to register to vote. The book culminates with the march in Selma and the violence that accompanied it and most importantly the changes it created.
I can’t say enough good things about this series. It brings critical Civil Rights history directly to teens in a format that is engaging. There is no way to turn away from the violence of the response of those in power as blood flows in the images on the pages. It makes it all the more powerful that the marches stayed nonviolent and focused on pacifism. Lewis himself voices again and again how much pressure there was at times in the movement to react more violently and how that was managed by himself and others. It is a testament to people willing to put their own bodies and lives at risk for progress.
The illustrations are riveting. Done in black and white, they effectively play darkness and light against one another, adding to the drama of the situations they depict. At times they are haunting and blaze with tragedy. The opening scenes of the Birmingham church are filled with tension and sadness that make it difficult to turn the pages and witness what happens.
These are the books our teens need right now. Every public library should have this series, no matter what races are represented in your community. This is our shared history and one that we cannot deny or turn away from. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband (InfoSoup)
A young boy is sent to Candle School by his mother, though the truth was the he was not very excited to go. His older sister Tassie almost has to drag him there, because he wanted to stop and see everything along the way. They headed down into the dark basement of a church where there were no windows. The school was run by Reverend John who shared his own story of being born a slave and then working to earn the freedom of himself and those he loved. Then one day men came to the Candle School and declared it closed since the State of Missouri had changed the law and no children of color could be taught to read or write. The school closed, but Reverend John did not give up and soon had his school floating in the middle of the Mississippi on a steamboat where the Missouri law could not impact them.
This picture book is based on the true story of Reverend John Berry Meachum whose story is given in more detail in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. The picture book is told through the eyes of a young boy who attends Meachum’s school and then works to reestablish it on the steamboat and pass the quiet word of the school reopening. Throughout the book there is a strong sense of purpose, of the importance of learning to read but also the importance of standing up for what is right.
The illustrations by Husband are exceptional. Using muted colors and fine lines, they capture the darkness of the school and the light on the children’s faces. They show the sorry of losing the right to learn and then the joy of growing up educated and looking to the future.
A luminous look at the harrowing life of African Americans even if they were free in the 1800s, this picture book is beautiful and filled with strength. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.