More graphic novels to talk about, this time, real-life stories. Some are realistic fiction, some are inspired by moments in the author’s life. All are great reading!
No Voice Too Small: 14 Young Americans Making History, edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila Dawson, & Jeanette Bradley/Illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, (Sept. 2020, Charlesbridge), $18.99, ISBN: 9781623541316
Fourteen outstanding young people who saw injustice and took action are celebrated here in poetry and art. Activists include Mari Copeny – “Little Miss Flint” – who demanded clean water for her community and got President Obama’s attention; Virsidiana Sanchez Santos, whose quinceañera at the Texas State Capitol called attention to the state’s stringent immigration policy; and Marley Dias, the girl who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks initative to collect books with characters who looked like her, and so many other readers looking for representation. These activists and 11 more find a place in the pages here, celebrated by luminaries including G. Neri, Nikki Grimes, Joseph Bruchac, and Lesléa Newman. Each profile includes a biographical paragraph; back matter explains the poetry forms used throughout the book, and profiles on each of the featured poets. Callout quotes invite readers to think about ways they can take action. The artwork showcases each of individual, and endpapers look like blackboards, with quotes from each activist in a chalk-white font. One percent of hardcover sales will go to TeachingforChange.org.
I’ve been diving into my graphic novel stash with renewed vigor for the last couple of weeks, and DC is dominating the kids and YA original graphic novel front. Every single one I’ve read has been unputdownable, and there are some brand new characters introduced to the universe that I hope, hope, HOPE we see again, because I know my son devoured these books and that my library kids will gobble them up and ask for more. So let’s check in with DC.
Inspired by a 1940 radio serial, award-winning author, artist, and former National Ambassador for Children’s Literature Gene Luen Yang takes on white supremacy and hate, with a little help from Superman. It’s 1946, and the Lee family – scientist Dr. Lee, his wife, and children, Tommy and Roberta – are moving from Chinatown into the Metropolis suburbs. While Dr. Lee and Tommy are excited about the move, Roberta and her mom are a little more reluctant. Dr. Lee pushes his wife to speak English and Tommy wants to fit in with the local kids, while Roberta and her mother are nervous about their English and miss the familiarity of Chinatown. Shortly after the family moves in, a group calling themselves the Clan of the Fiery Cross starts a reign of terror in the neighborhood, burning a cross on the Lee’s property. Police Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis police – an African-American man – gets involved, as does ace reporter Lois Lane. As the Clan increases their attacks on the Lee family, Superman shows up, too. But the Superman here is not the Superman we know and love just yet: he’s a man still learning about his powers and his heritage. When Superman reconciles who he is – Martha and Jonathan Kent’s son – with the discovery that he is also Kal-El from Krypton, all of Metropolis is in for a valuable lesson.
There’s so much going on here: strong subplots contribute to the main storyline of a white supremacist gang attacking a family and a town; we have Superman’s growing awareness of his power and the fact that he, too, is “not from here”, but “passes” because he’s a white male; Roberta, Lois Lane, and Superman working together to uncover the Clan before tragedy strikes; Tommy’s struggle to fit in; an illustration of generational racism at work; and a sinister plot afoot. Gene Luen Yang infuses the story with moments from history and his own life, and his author’s note, “Superman and Me”, at the end of the book, is an 11-page look at Superman, his place in US history, racism in US history, and the author’s own family story. A bibliography is available for further reading.
Superman Smashes the Klan is imperative reading. Gene Luen Yang’s storytelling always makes for incredible reading. Gurihiru’s artwork gives us iconic Superman moments; he calls to mind Action Comics #1 in a page where he hoists a car over his head, Roberta standing next to him, as they face shadowy, pointed hoods brandishing torches, chains, and baseball bats. Young Clark Kent lets his powers take hold of him as he defends a friend, rising in the air and letting laser vision unleash itself. He discovers his Fortress of Solitude, this time, underwater. The Clan of the Fiery Cross is horrific as they throw their hands high, welcoming a torch of flame in front of the Lee family home. So many powerful moments; he will make Superman fans out of every reader.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has a free, downloadable discussion guide. Superman Smashes the Klan is a great choice for Social Studies, US History, and ELA reading groups. Keep an eye on The Brown Bookshelf if you were unable to watch the Kidlit Rally for Black Lives on June 4th; Gene was one of the authors who spoke, along with luminaries like Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Kwame Alexander; the full recording will be posted soon. There’s a Q&A with Yang on We Need Diverse Books that you shouldn’t miss, either.
A thought-provoking treatise on nonviolent activism, We Are Power presents six case studies throughout recent history: Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Václav Havel, and Greta Thunberg. Each section explores nonviolent resistance, the roots behind each advocate’s activism, and how the power of one person, exhorting nonviolence, can motivate thousands and create change. In an increasingly contentious world, the power of nonviolent activism, and placing this information in the hands of a generation of activists, is not only smart, it’s crucial.
Beginning with Gandhi and his theory of “soul force”, or satyagraha, each consecutive profile touches on how previous movements inspired one another. Martin Luther King in particular was influenced by Gandhi, while Alice Paul’s suffrage activism was a response to the more extreme suffagists in the UK, and her desire to be seen as calm, unflappable, and strong. Cesar Chavez understood that increasing awareness of migrant worker conditions was the best way to bring social justice to migrant workers and received a letter of encouragement from Martin Luther King, himself leading nonviolent resistance movements to bring civil rights to the country. Playwright-turned-Czech president Vaclav Havel used his art to protest; later, letters from prison, where he wrote about truth and opened people’s eyes by telling them that they were complicit in allowing their restrictive government’s rule by following the rules. Teenager Greta Thunberg began her climate change protest by being the sole student striking for climate change, and motivated a planet to take action.
A solid beginning for a discussion on social justice, activism, and civil disobedience, this is a must-have volume for middle school and high school collections. I can’t wait to put this in my order cart when my library, opens again. This would be a great Summer Reading choice, for educators who haven’t finished their lists yet. Photographs of protests and tense moments, like seeing schoolchildren attacked by dogs and being doused with hoses, make for great discussions on the use of violence against nonviolence – what stands to be gained? Comprehensive endnotes, bibliography, and index complete the book. Author Todd Hasak-Lowy’s author webpage has videos and resources for parents and educators.
We Are Power has starred reviews from School Library Journal, School Library Connection, and Kirkus.
If you’re looking for some biographies on musicians who worked to change the world, here’s a starter list.
Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, by Michael Mahin/Illustrated by Evan Turk, (Sept. 2017, Athenum), $17.99, ISNB: 978-1481443494 It’s a good thing Muddy Waters wasn’t good at doing what he was told. Everyone from his grandma to record producers said no one wanted to hear the blues, but Muddy just kept playing, from family picnics to smoky juke joints, until he finally got to Chicago, and recorded his music.
Mahalia Jackson: Walking With Kings and Queens, by Nina Nolan/Illustrated by John Holyfield, (2015, Amistad/HarperCollins),$17.99, ISBN: 978-0-06-087944-0 Mahalia Jackson had a voice that could make you stop whatever you were doing in listen. Walking with Kings and Queens tells her story, from her New Orleans childhood to her performance at the March on Washington.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, by Laban Carrick Hill/Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, (Aug. 2013, Roaring Brook Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781596435407 In 1973, music changed forever when Clive Campbell – you may know him as DJ Kook Herc – created a new way of playing music to make the beats last longer, letting you dance longer. It caught on. Kids started breakdancing rather than fighting; a culture arose that influences music, style, and language to this day.
Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone, by Alice Brière-Haquet/Illustrated by Bruno Liance, (Dec. 2017, Charlesbridge), $16.99, ISBN: 9781580898270 Singer and activist Nina Simone grew up listening to music made by “important men in powdered wigs from past centuries” and faced down systemic racism to shine as a classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop vocalist and activist.
Listen – How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, by Leda Schubert/Illustrated by Raúl Colón, (June 2017, Roaring Brook Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626722507 Folk artist Pete Seeger led by example, be it through song or through activism. He said that participation would save the human race, and encouraged it through actions: he supported unions, protested war, and marched for civil rights, and he was vocal about environmentalism.
When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel, by G. Neri/Illustrated by David Litchfield,
(March 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763681746 The story of music duo Simon & Garfunkel, told in verse, takes the artists from their childhood in Queens, New York, through their mutual love of music and discovery of ’60s social change, and through their early musical career.
Recommended for ages 8-12
In 1969, a segregated North Carolina town is facing integration, and not everyone is happy about it. Set against this backdrop is the story of 12 year-old Sarah Beth, who is plagued with guilt when her younger sister is hit by a car while under her watch. Sarah’s family moves to a house on her grandparents’ property to save money, which means a new school – one that’s about to undergo integration. On the plus side, that means that Sarah will be able to go to school with her friend, Ruby Lee, an African-American who will be a student at the integrated school. Enthusiastically, the girls decide that they will be best friends in public – something not very common in the area – just like the Freedom Riders; but the girls have a falling out, leaving Sarah feeling more alone than ever. She’s lost her best friend, she’s facing a new school alone, and she’s certain her sister’s accident is her fault.
A work of both historical and realistic fiction, Ruby Lee & Me is a good coming-of-age story set against a time of huge social change.While this is Sarah’s story, first and foremost, friendship and integration amidst the upheaval of segregation and prejudice is a strong subplot. An upsetting incident involving the school’s first African-American teacher is a powerful moment in the story.
The history of race relations speaks volumes in the relationship between Sarah’s and Ruby’s grandmothers: they “gossip like best friends” when they’re together on the farm, but merely nod politely to one another in town; Sarah’s grandmother says, “The creek don’t care what color feet wade in it, but the town pool surely does. It’s easier to be friends away from wagging tongues”. Sarah’s ambitious daydream of she and Ruby being public friends sends both grandmothers into a tizzy; they discourage the girls from inviting trouble into their lives. Ruby Lee is annoyed when she sees her grandmother “trying too hard” around whites; Sarah sees Ruby as trying to be “the boss of her” in their interactions, yet always seeks her out when she needs someone to talk through a problem with.
A note from the author on historical accuracy briefly explains her connection to events in the story and points out little bits of tweaking made for creative license.