I’ve been accumulating a list of reads on race in America. It now looks long enough to last me about a decade, which is not a bad thing. I’ll pop on from time to time with posts alerting you to the best of what I’ve read.
Today, I’ve got four stellar choices for middle grade readers through adults, books that decry injustice, inspire courage and sacrificial love, and educate us on the blood-soaked backdrop to today’s passionate discourse — a background we all must work to understand.
Each of these books addresses Black-White race relations. I’ll have titles covering a broader scope of racial relationships coming up so stay tuned.
At the top of the list today are:
March, Books 1, 2, and 3, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell published in 2013, 2015, and 2016 respectively, by Top Shelf Productions
This graphic novel trilogy is unusually powerful — moving, enlightening, vivid, and informative. I highly recommend it for ages 14 through adult.
The story arc is the life journey of Congressman John Lewis and his engagement in the civil rights movement. Broad segments of civil rights history are dovetailed into the account to provide context for the more personal spotlight on Lewis himself. The inauguration of Barack Obama effectively book-ends the narrative.
I found that although I had previously read many segments of civil rights history, having it laid out in chronological order within a storyline was helpful for me. The books were also clarifying in terms of the alphabet-soup of civil rights groups who coalesced, debated, butted heads, tolerated, linked arms, pressed on, along the way. Living in that moment, making decisions fraught with danger, figuring it out as they went along, was difficult, so much more difficult than it sometimes looks in retrospect.
Most importantly for me as a White reader, the trilogy helped me better comprehend the weight borne by these men, women, and children, helped me feel the suffering, indignation, humiliation, grief, inner fire, unjust assaults, the long slog without any idea what the outcome would be or if they would live to see victory, the geyser of gladness over the election of our first Black president. This account also helped me grant more space, patience, and understanding for protesters today who struggle and fumble and disagree with one another in this complex movement, determining which steps to take, which goals to pursue, which methods to employ. Civil disobedience is hard, muddlesome work; judgement tends to be quickly passed by those in the comfortable seats; the path was not clear then, and it will not be clear now.
Each volume is a fairly quick read so don’t be put off by the thought of a trilogy. Just be forewarned that you’ll want to go back and read them again.
Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper published in 2015 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 320 pages
Stella is a young African-American girl living in the segregated world of rural North Carolina in the late 1930s.
The Depression is making life even tougher for her household and community than usual. It’s pinching the toes of whites in the area, too, giving rise to new waves of anger and lashing out by the KKK.
What does bravery look like in this context? And neighborliness? And an honest, standing up for truth, freedom, and decency? Great read for ages 9-12 highlighting Jim Crow, the KKK, the struggle for the right to vote, and unjust schooling under separate-but-(un)equal policies.
Night on Fire, by Ronald Kidd published in 2015 by Albert Whitman & Company 264 pages
Billie Sims is a 13-year-old white girl living in Aniston, Alabama, a town made infamous when a busload of Freedom Riders were violently, horrifically attacked there.
Billie’s on a journey of her own throughout this story, one of self-discovery, a growing awareness of racist attitudes within her “nice” community, family, and herself. Her friendships with the boy next door and the daughter of her family’s African-American maid help bring about a rising sense of what she might be put in the world to do.
Will she be a watcher, an on-looker of injustice? Or will she become a rider, one who puts her own life on the line, even, for a just cause? Lots of great discussion points in this book that leans a bit female, I’d say. Ages 13 and up.
Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights, written by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace published in 2016 by Calkins Creek
Most biographies of civil rights workers cover people from the Black community, and rightfully so.
There were, however, a number of White civil rights workers who died in the struggle for decency and equality, notably the three Freedom Riders killed in Mississippi. This account of a young man — Jonathan Daniels — who gave up his life at the age of 26 — was new to me. It’s a potent story that calls us to self-examination.
Daniels grew up in a well-ordered world in Keene, New Hampshire, found his calling as a minister and began seminary training, became incensed by Bloody Sunday, drove to Alabama to stand with the Black community during the week immediately following that attack, and then could not justify to his own conscience leaving Alabama and those embroiled in the civil rights struggle there. He stayed on.
His unswerving dedication to justice, love, non-violence, loyalty, confrontation of evil, gained him not only rich friendships but malevolent enemies. In the end he gave up his life defending his Black companions, shot in cold blood in Lowndes County, then the heart of segregationist Alabama. A sham trial exonerated his killer.
The Wallaces’ account is riveting. It starts a bit slowly, I have to say. I began this book once before and didn’t press on far enough. The chapters about Daniels’ childhood and time at Virginia Military Institute were a bit more detailed than I was looking for. Keep reading, though. The book picks up in intensity and becomes inescapably thought-provoking as soon as Bloody Sunday occurs.
The other difficulty with this book is its unwieldy size — about as heavy and large as some coffee table books with its thick, glossy pages. This enables the larger print and copious photographs which make the book easy on the eyes, but I’m afraid it will turn away many readers.
I’m here to encourage you to read it anyway! Great book club choice as there is so much to discuss here for ages 13 and up. The call to conscience for those of us on the privileged side of of the divide, is uncomfortably powerful.
I’ve read the March trilogy and Stella by Starlight and agree they are excellent and important books. I’ll have to check
out he others.
I would not have guessed how powerful the March trilogy was, but the awards it has won are well-earned.
[…] Or: March Trilogy (review here) […]
[…] It’s an excellent read for ages 11 and up and a great choice for book discussion groups. You might follow it up with a fine piece of historical fiction about the Freedom Ride, Night on Fire. […]
[…] March, volumes 1,2,3 – John Lewis A uniquely compelling pathway into understanding the Civil Rights movement. Be sure to read all 3 volumes as they form one unit. […]
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