Review of the Day: The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson, ill. Vanessa Brantley Newton
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist
By Cynthia Levinson
Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves now
Today I’d like to begin with a small talk about diversity. Not diversity of people necessarily, but diversity of style. Illustration styles, if we’re going to get right down to it. For a long time there has been a single prevalent style used when dealing with historical picture books featuring African Americans. It varies from case to case, but generally speaking, for decades, the only way publishers felt comfortable putting out nonfiction picture books on serious subjects was to have them illustrated with realistic illustrations. There are always exceptions to this rule (We March by Shane W. Evans or The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch being two such examples) but by and large realism is considered the only appropriate form. After the protests surrounding A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington I expected this situation to become even more prevalent. After all, those two books were not done in a serious style, and that fact was inseparable from their other issues. So it is with great relief that I view a book like The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson. Not just because it dares to include less realistic images with a serious tale, but also because illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton returns to form with a book bound to be remembered in the pantheon of historical child heroes.
She was nine-years-old in 1963. The year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham, AL. The year the Children’s March made headlines because it had a single purpose: Fill the jails with children. Fill them until they burst. It was a bold proposition but there were a lot of kids willing to do their part. Most of them were high school students . . . and then there was Audrey Faye Hendricks. Armed only with a board game and the clothes on her back, Audrey was jailed for a full week alongside the other children at the protest. There she suffered loneliness, intimidation from the guards, and even interrogations. In the end she returned home to her loving family, the youngest protestor in the March itself, and she dedicated her life thereafter to educating schools and students on what the Civil Rights Movement really was. A Time Line, Recipe for “Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter” and a list of Sources are included at the end.
Child heroes are kind of author Cynthia Levinson’s thing. As I was preparing this review I figured I’d knock out the readalikes beforehand. So I kept thinking to myself, “What was that other book about the child marchers again? I know it was a chapter book, and a lot older than Youngest Marcher but what was the title? Ah! It was We’ve Got a Job and it was by . . . Cynthia Levinson. Ditto her book, Watch Out for Flying Kids: How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community. If Cynthia has a métier, it is this. She is entranced by proactive kids with impetus that their lives in their own hands. In The Youngest Marcher Levinson writes for a younger audience, but she tackles the story in an interesting way. Since this is a book about a heroic child, why not really put child readers into Audrey’s shoes? As a result, the scenes in which Audrey sits in jail display of a certain strain of loneliness that a lot of kids will empathize with. After all, no one else in jail was her age, and all the teenagers (being teenagers) just wanted to talk with their friends all the time. And when she is hauled into an interrogation room with four angry white men the text tells us clear as day, “She’d never talked to a white man before.” Heck of a way to begin. Is there any kid out there that relishes the idea of being the only kid in a room with four angry men? I thought not.
The danger in writing any review about a nonfiction picture book set during the Civil Rights Era is to compliment it by disparaging similar titles. It is the lazy form of reviewing. To say, “This is good because these books are not”, isn’t adding any content or value to readers. In light of this, I want to point out everything Ms. Levinson does right and emphasize at the same time how difficult her job really is. First off, she has to make clear to readers precisely what segregation really was. Next, she has to quickly and concisely add that to other trials facing African-Americans at the time (job discrimination, the Klan, and police brutality in three sentences!). After that there’s historical accuracy. Does she use fake dialogue at any point in the book? She does not, and her solution to faking the dialogue is keen. When people think something and it’s the thoughts of a group then the terms are not placed in quotation marks but italics. The author also has to be capable of writing well. A hack job isn’t going to describe the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. as having, “a voice as taut as steel cables, as smooth as glass…” That takes the work of a real writer. And finally you need just one more thing – a good illustrator.
Full Disclosure: I’ve loved the work of Vanessa Brantley Newton for years. I loved her work on Drum City first and foremost, and kept a sharp eye on her from then on. When Ms. Newton first started illustrating children’s picture books she was one of a very few African-American female illustrators working in the States. These days she has a little more company (though certainly not enough). Her style is upbeat, diverse, and in the past she was the go-to person for, say, a Bob Marley song adapted into picture book form. Her work on A Birthday Cake for George Washington is, unfortunately, what she is best known for today. At the time of its publication I remember saying that she was the wrong illustrator for the piece. Much of the fault of that book lay with the author and editor too, but I wondered if it would have made a difference if a Floyd Cooper or Elizabeth Zunon had taken it in hand. I now think it was slated for failure no matter what happened, but Ms. Newton took the bulk of the blame at the time. So in many ways, The Youngest Marcher feels like a triumphant return. It’s not that she’s changed her style. Cheer is cheer and there is always hope in darkness, but in this book the dark pall of Jim Crow isn’t relegated to the wings but center stage.
We’re all trying to figure out these days how much or how little is appropriate to tell or show our young readers. There’s no guidebook out there. No set of rules that ordains that one subject is fine and another verboten. Every single editor, author, and illustrator has to feel their way through each book as they work on it. For The Youngest Marcher, the three probably had a number of conversations about how dark to go, particularly in the art. As a result, there’s a moment when someone says they were chased by the Klan. Newton creates not just an adult fleeing but children as well. There’s a point where Audrey has to sleep on a bare mattress with just a sheet. But that mattress isn’t some smooth, sweet ride but a filthy, stained affair with stuffing poking through and the occasional spring. There are interrogations, and a moment when she’s threatened with isolation, and there’s a shot of her sitting alone in her cell that’ll rip out the heart of any parent that sees it. But in the midst of this dark content, Newton’s art mediates the fear a kid might feel at viewing these images. Undoubtedly that was why she was hired. In this book she treats her subject matter with respect and ends up being darned kid-friendly in the process.
Actually, I mentioned before that Ms. Newton hasn’t changed her style, and for the most part that’s correct. But she has expanded it a bit. In this book you will find silhouettes (as when Martin Luther King Jr. is speaking so all can hear), collage (the television made out of French newspapers was a clever way of showing that the world was watching), and the cool curlicues of water as they surround children on the receiving ends of fire hoses. And can we please pay attention to the sheer range of skin tones at work here? Again, I’m not going to rip on other illustrators. I’m just going to say that if you are displaying an average African-American church in 1963 Birmingham, AL and you portray everyone in that church as the same shade of brown, that’s a very different kind of inauthenticity at work.
I wonder if child readers today have a better sense of Civil Rights marchers and what they went through today than the children of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Thanks to a significant uptick in protest marches against the Trump administration, a lot of children have at this point participated with their own parents. For those kids, this book gives them something they know (protest) and then takes it to the next level. That said, you don’t have to be a child protester to get something out of this story. It is not cloying. It is not cute. It is, however, infinitely readable. Thanks to its creators it proves that you can be kid-friendly and honest to history at the same time. It is not easy but it is possible. Heck, that could be the motto of what Audrey did in the first place. It wasn’t easy. But it was possible.
On shelves now.
Source: Review copy sent from publisher.
Like This? Then Try:
- Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
- Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh
- Kid Blink Beats the World by Don Brown
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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