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Showing posts with label Civil Rights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Civil Rights. Show all posts


The Negro Speaks of Rivers (2009)

Written by Langston Hughes

Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Text set in Esta


Disney Jump at the Sun Books

Picture book writing sometimes seems like an exercise in brevity. Perfectly suited, in that case, for this illumination of Langston Hughes' powerful poem.

I sometimes think I have trouble appreciating poetry, maybe because I read through it too quickly, looking for an emergent narrative instead of slowing down to mull over every word choice and phrasing.

I had no such trouble with this book. I'm sure I've read The Negro Speaks of Rivers a hundred times, but I can honestly say that it never struck me as much as it did with this volume.

E.B. Lewis is a true artists. His watercolors evoke other times and places, but at the same time support a continuity, one generation flowing into another.

I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down from New Orleans

Those two lines, juxtaposed may seem jarring, but here they appear seamless, a reminder that everything is connected.

I noted that the river water was never the same in any two images. In some it is muddy, then green, then deep blue, then the golden hue which graces the cover.

In his Illustrator's Note, Lewis writes:

Water has played a powerful role in the lives of black people. It has been the boon and bane of our existence. We have been born out of water, baptized by water, carried by, and even killed by water. After nearly drowning as a child, I have grown to acknowledge and respect this awesome element. I still feel drawn to it - in fact, it's what I most enjoy painting. In many ways, my life is like this poem: water almost ended my life; but now, through my watercolors, it has cultivated the spring of it. 


Separate is Never Equal (2014)

Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

"My hope is that this book will help children and young people learn about this important yet little known event in American history," writes Duncan in the afterword. "I also hope that they will see themselves reflected in Sylvia's story and realise that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country."

This true story – subtitled "Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" – takes place in the town of Westminster, California in the 1940's, though it's significance is lasting and growing – from a recent commemorative stamp celebrating the civil rights victory, to Sylvia Mendez being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. And, most pertinently, that great barometer of social consciousness – a picture book.

I've read one other book by Duncan, which I haven't yet reviewed here, and he has a very distinctive style. There's no mistaking one of his books. The characters are flat and appear only at full profile, lips identically pursed, fingers extended, figure-eights for ears. He is nonetheless able to eke quite a bit of expression from those faces. I think my favorite were the children eating their sandwiches in the grounds of Hoover Elementary – "the Mexican school" – each with a halo of five flies above their heads.  Behind them is the school building, the electric fence ("…if you touched it, you received a shock!") and two cows with full udders.

The story concerns the efforts of Sylvia's father – Gonzalo Mendez – to ensure his children receive the best possible education for his children. When enrolling in the public school system, he is told that Sylvia's cousins – who have light skin and long auburn hair and a Mexican father of French descent – are to attend the white school. Sylvia, though she was born in America, is told she must attend the Mexican school, based only on the color of her skin.

The trial sequence is especially well wrought, though maddening when I discovered that the absurd banter between the superintendent and the lawyer was based on actual transcripts of the case.

"How many of the two hundred ninety-two children at the Mexican school are inferior to whites in personal hygiene?

"At least seventy-five percent."

"In what other aspects are they inferior?"

The book does not treat the desegregation as a final victory. Indeed, the story begins with Sylvia – now attending the desegregated school – having a hard time adjusting to the children telling her she should go back to the Mexican school.

"I don't want to go to that school anymore. The kids are mean."

"No sabes que por eso luchamos? Don't you know that is why we fought?"

"According to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angles, across the United States segregation has increased significantly in  recent years," Duncan continues in his afterword. "It reported that 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white."

Sylvia Mendez, then and now.


Unspoken (2012)

Illustrated by Henry Cole

Canson charcoal paper with Staedtler Mars 4B pencils

Adobe Garamond Pro Regular

Scholastic Press

This is a startlingly beautiful work. I can't quote any of it, because, as promised by the title, all is unspoken. The narrative relies only on the artwork to carry it along. The temptation is to flip through it quickly, but there is too much texture on each page. There's hardly any white space, practically every square centimeter is filled, even the cloudless sky, let alone the plentiful wood, brick and earth.

It seemed to me this book was as much about the setting and the environment as it was with the story. The first several pages consist of the young girl's life on the farm. Watching soldiers marching by, feeding the chickens, hanging quilts. I got a real sense of the passage of time, and the entirety of this young girl's existence.

When the story comes into play, it is with subtlety and mystery.

Do you see the eye in the corn?

That eye is all that is ever seen. Unspoken, indeed. There are layers of invisibility, just as the young girl herself, is practically invisible to the soldiers and bounty hunters come to her parent's home.

"Because I made only the pictures," writes Cole, "I'm hoping you will write the words and make this story your own."


Crossing Bok Chitto (2006)

Written by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

Cinco Puntos Press

There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws, a nation of Indian people. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free. The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.

This opening paragraph sets up the time period, the environment and the tone of this tale. This is a downbeat, yet elegant story and quite a contrast to Tingle's previous book which I had just discussed, When Turtle Grew Feathers. There's no jaunty talking animals this time, though there is a fantasy-device running through the narrative, the ability for African Americans to render themselves invisible.

"Son, son, it's about time you learned. There is a way to move amongst them where they won't even notice you. You move not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!"

That's the father of Little Mo, giving his son advice on sneaking past the white plantation owners in order to help a young Choctaw girl named Martha Tom back across the river. This is a story about their friendship, and takes place over several years, as the two grow and age within their respective cultures, separated by the Bok Chitto.

Maybe the white people tell it best. They talk about the night their
forefathers witnessed seven black spirits, walking on the water
- to their freedom!
It struck me how I am used to reading stories of Native American befriending the whites, and stories of black slaves befriending the whites, and on and on with so-called "unlikely" friendships between a minority and a white. In this story, however, the whites are always the other, and are never humanized. They represent a common adversary for the Choctaw and the black slaves.

Jeanne Bridges' art is wonderful. We begin very naturally, very downbeat, figures cast very plainly, but with just a subtle variation in tone, and the artwork takes on mystical tones. The Choctaw women, dressed in long white robes, holding candles out before them under the full moon, seemingly gliding across the surface of the river. "When they reached the Choctaw side of the river, they blew the candles out and disappeared into the fog, never to be seen on the slave side again." I felt it, I felt all the mystery and the beauty and the elegant mysticism of it.

Really beautiful book trailer made by a fan


I Want to be Free (2009)

Written by Joseph Slate

Illustrated by E.B. Lewis


Text set in ITC Cushing

G.P. Putnam's Sons

"This poem is a retelling of a story in the sacred literature of Buddha about his disciples, the Elephant Ananda, as related by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim," writes Joseph Slate, though you'd hardly guess it from a glance. The setting is very far removed from the world of Kipling. This is a story of African slaves fleeing their plantation and escaping to freedom along the underground railroad.

For complete authenticity, the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, made the journey from Kentucky across the Ohio river. "I imagined the dark nights when lives quietly swept across to the other side," he writes. "I toured the Rankin House in Ripley, OH, for the first time and stood still for a while to reflect on the risky and humane actions that helped free slaves during those times."

That is not to suggest that everything about this book is based on fact. There are several more fantastical moments, beginning with the very first page.

Before I die, I want to be free.
But the Big Man says, "You belong to me."

And then we see the Big Man, rising before the young slaves like a specter, his face covered in shadow from his wide-brimmed hat. His enormity is exaggerated. Looking at him is like looking at an unscalable mountain.

But its a mountain the narrator attempts to scale nonetheless. In another few pages, he's off through the woods, finding a cave by nightfall where other slaves huddle and hide. These nighttime scenes are incredibly beautiful and atmospheric, using just a few different shades of green, lewis creates an entire world of lush vegetation, ragged clothing and nighttime starscapes.

Big Man has dogs. He has a gun.

The salves flee in the night. One small child who had lost his mother is about to be left behind.

"Oh no," says I. "We'll run to the wild! The Lord will help me care fort this child!"

For the rest of the story, we follow the two of them fleeing together, all the meanwhile, the iron is still clasped firmly around the leg of the man.

One day, my child looked close at the rung.
Said, "Papa, papa, what is that thing?"
I told him the story of that dark, dark day.
He touched the ring. It fell away.
Tears welled up. Fell down from my face.
I saw my child lit up by grace.
"How, dear child, did you set me free?"
"I'm from the Lord. You cared for me."


Play Ball, Jackie! (2011)

Written by Stephen Krensky

Illustrated by Joe Morse

Millbrook Press

Oh, it's a strange thing, reading a book like this to my five year old son, to have it begin with the story of a father and his son going to a baseball game together. For me, I'm immediately digging the details Joe Morse adds in to make us feel like we're really back in the day - New York, 1947 - the clothes, the old trollies, the ads for Coca-Cola - I love stuff like that.

For Arlo, to be immediately taken in by the umpire with wild eyes and lips pulled back, "PLAY BALL!" with all the baseball players and their uniforms out their on the field, surrounded by some 25,000 fans, several dozen if whom are illustrated individually with rich details such that I'm certain any person in the know could pick out which neighborhood they were from. It's not homogeneous. It's frenetic with raised fists.

It's not until several pages in that the true story emerges, as Matty, a young boy, is told by his father how he came across the tickets to Opening Day.

"Free tickets," his father had told him. "One of the guys at work refused to go."

"Really?" said Matty. "He must be crazy."

"Not crazy. Disgusted."

"About what?"

Jackie Robinson. He's the center of the tale, though we see him only through the eyes of others - the enraged eyes of working class bigots, and the incredulous eyes of the open-minded and the innocent.

I think Arlo shares quite a bit in common with Matty, not understanding what the issue was, having to have it explained to him, spelled out. There's no question which side of the debate Matty's father is on.

"I don't care what color they are. Remember, your grandfather came to America from Italy. Lots of people didn't give him a chance either."

And it's a lesson Matty is able to put into practice during the 7th Inning Stretch, when he stands in line behind three kids, two white, one black.

"Just you wait," says the black boy. "Jackie will show you. There are plenty of good black players out there."

Matty returns with a hotdog and a "I'm for Jackie," button, a gift from the boy.

"We met these kids," Matty explains to his proud father. "They didn't think Jackie belonged on the team."


"We straightened them out."

The rest of the narrative follows the game. Krensky takes great care to detail it as it happened, with the names of the players, the scores, the plays, and leading to Jackie scoring a run in, the Dodgers winning the game.

I loved the way Jackie was kept removed, not seeing his thoughts, bit only how the boy imagined Jackie must have felt. It served to keep his stature mythic, larger than life, while at the same time, keeping the story grounded and filled with real, genuine emotion. Not a biographical account or a history lesson, but history-as-mythology.

The book concludes with several photographs of the real Jackie Robinson and a brief biographical note written by the author which concludes with a quote from baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Baseball's proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field.
Click here for more stories about Civil Rights!


The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights (2010)

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Watercolor and pastel on Twinrocket tinted watercolor paper

Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

"Since the first African-American churches were founded in the 18th Century, black religious organizations have brought biblical values to bear on the freedom struggle," begins the book in a nice introductory note, explaining the pairing of the text of Matthew 5:3-12 - commonly referred to as the Beatitudes - with snapshot portraits of scenes from the history of Civil Rights.

We start in the darkened hold of a slave ship - one of the slaves sitting up straight - staring into a shaft of light beaming through the ceiling. "I am the Lord your God," begins the narrative. "I was with the Africans who were torn from the Motherland and cramped in holds of ships on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. I heard the chant Kum ba ya, kum ba ya."

Running along the bottom of the two-page spread is the first of the beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

In direct contrast with the first image, the next is filled with light. A family claps their hands in a sun-drenched church:

I was with Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and James Varick, who founded churches where African Americans could praise the Lord and shout "Hallelujah!" I rang the church bells.

From there we move chronologically through American history. Harriet Tubman against a star-filled night. Marian Anderson standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Rosa Parks, poor Emmett Till.

I had to pause at the image of young Ruby Bridges, wide-eyed between the shoulders of the law - and in particular, the faces twisted in rage and hate filling the pages behind her which Ladwig very menacingly illustrates. "Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you."

Of all the historical names listed, Ruby Bridges was one of only two with a birth date and no death date. Somewhere, Ruby is 57 years old. The only other still living subject - born just seven years after Ruby Bridges - is Barack Obama.

I was with [him] when he took his oath as President of the United States. I was the Bible where he placed his hand.

From there, finally, we are transported back a hundred years or more, as a group of men, women and children wade into the waters, the sky orange with dawn. "The holy water is the stream of humanity," concludes Weatherford. "Drink, breathe and be free."


Boycott Blues (2008)

Illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Colored inks on clayboard

Text set in Adobe Caslon

I read through this book twice before seeing the author's note at the end in which she explains the origins of the term "Jim Crow." "For this story," Andrea Pinkney writes, "I have taken the liberty of depicting Jim Crow as a menacing bird to give characterization to segregation's ugly reality."

Wait a minute... had I missed something? Had I overlooked such stark symbolism? I flipped back to the beginning. Sure enough - on only the second illustration in - the words, "It was December 1, 1955, when the blues came to call - the same day Jim Crow flew in waving his bony wings," and her husband has unevenly sketched the White House with a bus puttering along before it, and above the White House is a large, menacing smudge which resembles an exploding storm cloud. And yes, if I stare at it long enough, Rorschach-style, it does seem the smudge contains a black beak, crazed wings, flapping curiously... If I blink, it reverts to just an inky mess, a black hole where the sun ought to be.

For the remainder of the pages, we see only its black tendrils about the outskirts of the images. It's there, hovering above the fateful bus that Rosa Parks boarded at the end of her workday.

Whenever Jim Crow got to laying down the letter of the law, to stating the state of segregation, he did it with his peck, peck, peck. And on this day, Jim Crow's peck was a duet.

The bus driver stands with his fingers pointing toward the rear, the driver's seat is engulfed in the stuff, swirling about like the Venom suit in SpiderMan, using him as its conduit. But, "even with Jim Crow's peck, peck, peck sounding like rust on a bedspring, Rosa stayed seated."

When Rosa leaves the bus, escorted by two police officers, the inkblot encompassing all of the bus.

The boycott begins. For one year, African-Americans - followed by white - refused to ride, crippling a major aspect of the American infrastructure across the nation.

Then came the miracle. The Supreme Court invited Jim Crow in for a visit, and waved a gavel on his bony wings. The judge in the courthouse said, "Jim, you're all wrong."

The black visage lifts, the colors of the page are able to shine through. "Bony wings, adieu. Peck, peck, peck, later for you. Bye-bye, boycott blues."
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