A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

Advertisements

From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This is a beautiful book. I didn’t know much about it, though, except that it had was getting a bunch of awards and had a gorgeous cover. It lived up to expectations, certainly.

Hà is ten years old, living with her three older brothers and mother in Saigon in 1975. Let me remind you — today, Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. And what was going on in Vietnam in 1975? Yep.

Needless to say, Hà’s mother is worried for her family’s safety. But if she leaves Vietnam, her husband (who was lost at war) would never be able to find them again. The situation is desperate, though, and soon they have very little choice but to escape with Hà’s uncle’s family, on a boat bound for America. And it’s because of what happens once they hit the American shores that made me fall in love with this book and this girl.

I’ve never read a book that seems to so perfectly capture the young English language learner experience. Of course, I don’t have any personal experience as an ELL, but I AM reading an informational book for educators right now (Getting Started with English Language Learners, by Judie Haynes) and everything Haynes is telling me about ELLs shows up in this text. This either is a sign of authenticity for Lai or for Haynes (I’m not sure which), but because of this, the story definitely rings true. From Hà’s realization that a, an, and thes act like “little metaphors to tell the world whose English is still secondhand”, to her struggle with knowing she used to be smart and now feels incredibly stupid, it made me understand the ELL experience way more than I think Haynes’ book can.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s all written in verse? Beautiful, heart-breaking, hilarious, thoughtful verse?

I want everybody — especially everybody in a school setting where you may interact with students learning English — to read this book. Please.

2.5 stars