Archives for posts with tag: Coretta Scott King Award

March Book OneMarch Book TwoMarch Book Three

Of all the treasures in the Smithsonian, the exhibit that sticks with me the most is a pair of petite, scuffed, rundown, women’s loafers worn during the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  I found the shoes in a distant corner on the upper floor of the National Museum of American History, tucked safely in a display case with photographs and posters from the trek.  The case had been relocated due to renovations elsewhere in the museum, and I was lucky to run across it.  Those shoes mesmerized me.  They had been worn for all 54 miles of the march and showed it.  I can only imagine what it had been like to wear them.

I am equally mesmerized by March: Books 1-3, the graphic novel trio by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and art by Nate Powell.  John Lewis, currently a U.S. Representative from Georgia, has spent his life in the civil rights movement.  As a young man, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key group in the movement.  He organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, participated in the Freedom Rides, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and helped lead the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

March is Lewis’ memoir of his civil rights work in the 1950s-60s.  It’s an insider’s look at the movement from a less well-known perspective.  Lewis lays out the motivation for his actions and decisions as well as those of the movement’s student wing.  He provides insight into the internal politics of the various organizations behind the movement.  His descriptions and Nate Powell’s drawings reflect the brutality of the struggle for equality–humiliation, beatings, incarceration, bombings, torture, death.  March accurately reflects the times it depicts; as a result, it’s not always easy to look at or to read.

Lewis bookends the movement’s history with scenes from the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  Book One opens with Lewis preparing for the event; as he stops by his Capitol Hill office, he meets a woman wanting her young sons to understand the significance of the day.  Lewis pauses to relate the history of the civil rights movement to her sons, and the story begins.  Although somewhat awkward as a narrative device–additional scenes with Lewis speaking to the woman appear to serve as transitions at different points in the books–the intensity and immediacy of the art and text make up for it.  Lewis anchors his experiences around the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, hence the title.  All 3 volumes echo the call of “We’ll march!”, building up to the Alabama trek’s successful conclusion at the end of Book Three.

Nate Powell’s drawings may only be in grayscale, but they make as much impact as full color.  He uses a mix of bold strokes and detailed shadings to convey a wide range of emotions.  He incorporates large swaths of black background (sometimes a majority of a two-page spread) to highlight text or fine drawings or grave subject matter.  Powell cleverly incorporates the sizable amount of text in his drawings without sacrificing space or emotional power.  He has a tremendous capacity to capture facial expression and body language, portraying with equal skill reflective thoughtfulness and intense hate demonstrated by both black and white figures.  The books have won multiple Eisner Awards (the graphic novel world’s equivalent of the Oscars) for a reason.

March: Books 1-3 is an intense, fascinating exploration of our nation’s recent history.  It’s a natural choice for graphic novel or memoir fans and history buffs.  It has plenty to offer a wider audience, however.  Give the first volume or all 3 to high school students and adults; the books are equally interesting as part of a broader discussion or enjoyed alone.  Be prepared to provide context for or an introduction to the civil rights movement for middle students who read March as it accurately portrays the events and language of the time.  Like that unassuming pair of shoes in the Smithsonian, Lewis’ memoir holds a powerful message.


the-first-part-lastI found today’s book while searching for a title for the next installment of the library’s Teen Book Club.  The First Part Last by Angela Johnson was first published in 2003. Since that time, both the book and its author have won several honors, including the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award for demonstrating “an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” and Michael L. Printz Award for “literary excellence in young adult literature”. It’s easy to see why. The First Part Last offers an intense, gut-wrenching look at a difficult topic using spare language to convey complex emotions.

Bobby receives a bombshell for his sixteenth birthday—his girlfriend Nia is pregnant. In an instant, his world is turned upside down. Neither he nor Nia planned for this to happen. Now both are left to find a way to “do the right thing” for themselves and the baby.

Although the book is a quick read (131 pages) with a simple plot line, it stands out for its power to tell a lesser-known tale concisely and beautifully. This is one of the few books exploring teen pregnancy from the male point of view. Angela Johnson uses concrete, contemporary language to create a portal into Bobby’s complex emotions. She allows us into Bobby’s physical world—sleepless nights, high school, “new baby” smell, New York City—with all five senses at work. She only includes what is necessary to share Bobby’s experiences and to advance the story—no extra drama or dialogue here.

The story alternates between scenes in the present when Bobby is a full-time father and scenes in the past starting with Nia’s pregnancy news and ending with baby Feather’s arrival. Throughout, Bobby struggles with his new responsibilities in the no-man’s-land between being a kid and an adult. He reels, just as we do, when a plot twist toward the end packs an extra emotional punch.

I was glad to find this book again as it had been several years since I last read it. It has been a powerful, amazing experience every time I’ve picked it up. The First Part Last speaks to both teens and adults. This is a great title for individual reading, but it is even better for inter-generational reading and discussion. Be sure to have tissues on hand.

The Teen Book Club meets the first Thursday of the month from 6:00-7:00 p.m. and is open to youth in grades 6-12. The program is free; no registration is necessary. Structured by teens for teens, the group’s goals are to generate and sustain enthusiasm for recreational reading and to provide opportunities for a respectful exchange of ideas. Participants read books of their choice relating to the monthly theme chosen by the group then meet to chat about their books and their responses to the titles. There are a wide variety of titles and opinions shared. (Plus, we have snacks.) The Teen Book Club meets again on Thursday, February 4; this month’s theme is “books with a number in the title”.