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


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!


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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