Marching Still

March: Book One (2013) and Book Two (2015), by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Opening line: “‘John? Can you swim?'”

It’s amazing how relevant this story is today.

In the first two parts of the planned trilogy, readers of this startling graphic novel series will get a full picture of the life and times of U.S. Representative John Lewis. The only one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement still alive, Rep. Lewis partnered with a member of his D.C. staff and a graphic novelist to tell his story to a younger generation. Book One starts with the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration, a day that blends itself in between the stories of previous decades, before going back to John’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Pike County, Alabama. Believing it was his destiny to be a preacher, he started speaking his gospel to the chickens he was in charge of on the family farm, but eventually realized that his mission lay elsewhere. While in college, he met with other students who were practicing non-violence in preparation for protests they intended to do at lunch counters that refused to serve black customers. Before long, John was heavily involved, becoming an active member in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping to organize the lunch counter protests, movie theater protests, the Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Montgomery, and then the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is clear from the structure of the book that Rep. Lewis (and his co-writers) meant for the reader to connect the events of the past with today’s current situation. As I mentioned above, snippets of President Obama’s inauguration day on January 20, 2009 appear throughout the text, often overlapping with images or word bubbles from events during the 50s and 60s. Perhaps this project began as a symbol of triumph for John Lewis, showing that all the hard work of he and his fellow civil rights activists paid off as we elected our first black president. I wonder, though, if and how the third installment will be different. As I poured through these pages, I couldn’t help but see images that look haunting like the ones I see on the news and internet today, the words of President Kennedy sounding so similar to those of President Obama in response to another tragedy.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lewis spoke in Atlanta with other civil rights leaders, addressing this issue. “I tell you,” he said, “we have a fight on our hands. I happen to think we’re too quiet.” He seems hopeful though, that with some “good trouble and necessary trouble” we can keep marching more toward equality. Let’s hope he’s right.

Dark, graphic, yet hopeful. 2 stars.

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Introducing the Documentary Novel

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No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (2012)

Opening line: “Everybody keeps saying be satisfied with Jesus’s love, and he will give us our daily bread. I keep waiting, but we never get any bread, so I have to go out and do things for myself.”

I’ve been immersed in the realm of non-fiction lately, trying to find extended informational texts for our ELA teachers to use in their classes (since, according to CCSS, students should be reading 2 extended informational texts per year at the middle school level — yikes). This has led to all sorts of confusing conversations about what qualifies as informational, what qualifies as extended, etc. And this new “genre” introduced by Nelson only muddles the conversation even further.

What a peculiar book. As the subtitle states, it chronicles the life and work of Lewis Michaux, evidently an incredibly influential Harlem bookseller in the 1940s-70s. Has anyone heard of this guy before now? His bookshop was the gathering place for famous poets, writers, activists, and leaders, most notably, Malcolm X. Not only did he house the great leaders of the civil rights movement, but he was an outspoken voice himself, loudly displaying controversial signs in his windows, shouting as he pulled book carts down the sidewalks, always advocating for African Americans to educate themselves with materials written by them, for them, and about them. He believed in his store and what he was selling, calling it “The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.” Because according to Michaux, “Knowledge is the thing that is needed among young people today. You can’t protect yourself if you don’t know something.”

So not only was this content new and exhilarating, but the format too was something different than I’ve ever read before. Nelson (or her publishers, as the case may be) describes it as a “documentary novel,” which means it’s a blend of various character voices in little paragraph or page-long snippets and media (photographs, newspaper clippings, FBI reports, etc.) to create a picture of a historical figure. The actual voices are created from the author’s imagination, but the characters and clippings are almost all true and historical. So does this qualify as an “extended informational text”? It’s conventions (photos/images/graphs with captions, index, references, bibliographies, etc.) would suggest so. But it’s structure is one very much of a storytelling narrative, so I think all in all, no. Does that mean it does not share information with readers? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I learned all kinds of information I didn’t know before by reading Nelson’s book. It’s definitely informational, regardless of Common Core’s definitions.

Although I learned a ton and powered through this in less than 24 hours, the content is a bit dry for teen readers. I have a feeling it would take quite a motivated reader to pick up this selection and read it in its entirety. A powerful story, and one told in a new and inventive way, but not quite as engaging as I had hoped.

1.5 stars

Trying too hard in Mississippi

Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (2012)

I somehow read two middle grade books about Southern race relations right in a row, which may be why this one won’t get as good of a review.

It’s the summer of 1964, and Glory is anxiously awaiting awaiting her 12th birthday, which she plans to spend as she does every year: at a pool party with her family and friends. But this summer is different from summers past, because there are some new folks in town who are making certain people very nervous. The Freedom Fighters, as the new folks are called, are making a stand for racial equality and integration, and those who disagree with their views become defensive. Before Glory fully realizes what is happening, the town council has closed the pool in an effort to keep it from becoming integrated. And the changes keep going from there.

I have to tell you, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some good parts, but mostly, I felt like it was just trying too hard. Glory is too earnest, writing a powerful letter to the editor of the town paper about her disgust about racial segregation, when really her motivation seems almost entirely directed toward getting the pool reopened for her birthday party. Sometimes Scattergood writes her characters’ dialogue with elements of Southern speech, sometimes she doesn’t. Glory’s father is almost non-existent except for when he all of a sudden stands up for her in a moment of heartfelt pride. Glory’s friendship woes don’t seemreal. None of it did, to be honest.

Which is why I was surprised when I read the author’s note at the end, in which she explains that large parts of  the novel she pulled from her own personal history growing up in Mississippi. I’m wondering if this was the book’s downfall. Maybe  Scattergood had these memorable experiences of her childhood that she felt would make a good story and she just tried too hard to get all the parts to fit, rather than allowing the story (and its characters) to become its own.

One perk: since Scattergood herself is a former children’s librarian, the public library plays a pivotal role in the novel and the librarian is the only one who truly sticks to her guns in terms of what is right. Obviously, I’m a fan of this.

Fine, but not fully convincing: 1 star

Love and Hate in Jackson, Mississippi

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

Get ready, folks, for this was my favorite book in a loooonnnng time.

Thanks to the “borrowing policy” of my recent employers, I was able to bypass the 42-person-wait at the local library to read the book that so many of my friends have urged me to.  “You will love it!” they said. And love it, I did.

The story opens in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, with the voice of Aibileen, black housemaid to the white Leefolt family. Aibileen starts the novel off by summarizing the role of black housemaids: “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” Her quote also represents the major reason why I devoured this book. Although I guess I don’t have the most valid standpoint when it comes to judging the authenticity of the voice of a southern black woman,  Stockett’s voice of Aibileen seems so natural and dead-on that I spent the first two chapters reading out loud. It’s not muddled with apostrophes or misspellings like some other authors use to represent southern speech, but seems to simply pour out of the character’s mouth onto the page. And then when Stockett switches to a different character’s voice, and then another’s a few chapters later,  they too have perfect pitch. You know when Aibileen’s speaking, you know when Minny’s speaking, and you know when Skeeter’s speaking, not because of the context, but because of their voices.

Skeeter, the only white narrator, is a young, ambitious, college graduate who yearns to be a real writer. When she comes home from school after four years away, she gets her first real taste of the color line, when her life-long maid (the woman who loved and raised her), has disappeared and no one will tell her why. Skeeter then begins to notice the other maids in town, as she sits with her friends Elizabeth and Hilly for bridge club, and Hilly brings up the initiative she’s starting to institute separate bathrooms in the garage for all maids, so as not to spread the diseases that black people inherently carry. As Aibileen (Elizabeth’s maid) silently listens to the discussion and pours them tea, Skeeter can’t help but think how humiliating it must be for her and she starts to wonder what she (and other maids) think about their white employers. And suddenly she has her first idea of something real to write about.

Skeeter’s dangerous undertaking provides the vehicle for Stockett to explore the contradictory relationship between southern black maids the the white families they wait on, filled with both unconditional love and extreme prejudice and hate.

Fascinating and a joy to read, three stars.