We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, written by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton published in 2013 by Disney, Jump at the Sun Books
Music is a mover and a shaker, a transformer, an uplifter.
The soul-stirring melodies and rich words of spirituals sung by enslaved African Americans certainly have that effect on us, even today, even in strikingly different circumstances.
This fascinating book traces the history and evolution of one of those spirituals as it became the anthem for millions of oppressed people the world over:
We shall overcome We shall overcome We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe We shall overcome some day.
Begin in the cotton fields, then follow along through factory workers’ protests, lunch counter sit-ins, the March on Washington, and on to South Africa under apartheid, to East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and to the election of Barack Obama, a day most African Americans could hardly believe they’d ever see.
Colorful, upbeat illustrations reflect the times and locations along the journey. Notable milestones are further annotated in some final pages. A wonderfully creative approach to history and song, for ages 6 and up.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, written by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis published in 2016 by Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Books for Young Readers
Here’s a gorgeous biography of John Lewis, a man who has worked and suffered and kept on keeping on for his whole life in the struggle for civil rights.
Asim confines his narrative to Lewis’s childhood, allowing him the opportunity to amble along slowly, to soak in the details of those growing up years that were the foundation for all that followed.
That includes dusty days of following the plow-mule, growing collards and sweet potatoes in the garden patch, and dressing for Sunday services in starched white shirts. John regularly attended church where he loved gospel music and felt called to be a minister, to follow in the footsteps of the sermon-givers he heard each week.
So much so that as a little boy, Lewis would practice by preaching to the chickens! Settle down, Sister Big Belle. Get back on your feet, Li’l Pullet. This boy’s got some Good News to share with you!
E.B. Lewis’s masterful, sun-dappled illustrations carry us straight into John’s world on a dusky farm in Alabama, shine a light on the earthy labors of his family and one earnest, tenderhearted fellow. It’s an intimate, warm, inspiring portrait of one of our American heroes. Ages 4 and up.
Birmingham, 1963, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated with archival photographs published in 2007 by Wordsong
In one horrific moment, on September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed as they attended Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Violent, white, racist, men bombed their church, unleashed their abhorrent hatred on an entire community. Why? because their skin was a different color.
Poet Carole Boston Weatherford captures the senselessness and abomination of this act, the shock and sorrow of the congregation, as she weaves a free verse story from the point of view of a fictional witness, a ten-year-old girl who attends the same Sunday School.
Weatherford’s peaceable depiction of this child, the unsuspecting eagerness she feels preparing for Youth Day at church, her steady, happy march towards the terror we know awaits her, is tremendously moving. Devastating. As it should be.
Dylan Roof’s trial, the recent uptick in racist vandalism, Black Lives Matter, are all vivid indicators that this story must still be told. Share this striking, brief book with children capable of managing the emotional jolt of this event. Perhaps ages 8 and up.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans published in 2015 by Schwartz & Wade Books
Inspired by a woman named Lillian, granddaughter of a slave, who at age 100 in the year 2008 voted for the first African American president, this is the story of struggle and perseverance in the fight for civil rights and particularly voting rights.
Just as the elderly Lillian plods her way up a steep hill in order to get to her polling station and cast her vote, so an entire people strove in an uphill battle against slavery, oppression, indignities, discrimination, hatred, violence, untold weariness until that landmark day in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed.
That right, so dearly won, is one Lillian can’t take for granted. You won’t either, after this meaningful, passionate, succinct survey of those centuries of American history. Illustrated vibrantly with Shane Evans’ affecting, dignified human figures, with pages that pull us up, up, up, until at last we stand. Impressive. Ages 7 and up.
Remember: The Journey to School Integration, written by Toni Morrison, illustrated with archival photographs published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin
Author Toni Morrison’s powerful imagination is beautifully employed here as she gazes at poignant, sepia-toned photographs, then brings them to life with dialogue, scenarios, thoughts, emotions, ushering us into the tumult of school desegregation in the 1950s and 60s.
Hear from a precious kindergarten-age girl and some protesting teen-age boys. From Ruby Bridges and a pair of women sitting at a lunch counter. Anonymous children and famous freedom-fighters. Apprehension. Determination. Innocence. Ugliness.
Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words and I’m so glad that these beauties are given plenty of room to speak to us. Morrison’s captions gracefully, mightily enhance the photos, but the modest volume of the text does not usurp their power.
A timeline, notes on the photos, and a lengthy foreword by Morrison are all tailored to slightly older students. The richness of the photos and ideas are suited to a wide age range, from 5 to adult.