Review of the Day: Choosing Brave by Angela Joy, ill. Janelle Washington
Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, ill. Janelle Washington
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves now
Recently I had the great pleasure of attending an exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The museum, should you ever get a chance to visit, is a bit of a trip. It may conceivably be called the best children’s museum in America, and that’s due in large part to the water clock in the lobby, and exhibits that encompass everything from National Geographic archaeological tours to Scooby Doo mysteries. But on this particular visit I was able to view the exhibit “Let the World See: Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley”. It’s precisely as you might expect. Not far from where Scooby and Shaggy are solving crimes, we’ve a real world exhibit for the older kids, replete with truth and exhibits with titles like “Murdered for Whistling”. And as I made my way through the stations, I couldn’t help but appreciate that I live in an era when a major museum for kids is unafraid to tackle head on a great injustice of American history. Now with the film Till coming out in theaters, it seems the right time to have a particularly good children’s book on Emmett Till and his mother come to publication as well. Choosing Brave by Angela Joy is NOT the first book for children on Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley. It is, however probably the best. Told not simply with accuracy but with soul, illustrated by a paper-cut artist who has never created a picture book before, Choosing Brave proves that it’s true that history can be presented to children in book form if, and only if, the author and artist at work give it all their heart and intelligence. Choosing Brave is the book for kids we will turn to on this topic for decades and decades and decades to come.
There is a quote at the beginning of this book. “I just had to pray and brave it. – Mamie Till-Mobley”. What is bravery? Kids read about it all the time in stories of fighters and warriors. This is a book that shows the kind of bravery than an average, everyday person is capable of performing. Time and again Mamie Till-Mobley was given the chance to do the easy thing or the right thing. Every time she chose the right but harder route. Our story begins in Mississippi, where little Mamie Elizabeth Carthan was born. She moved with her family to the North to Argo, outside of Chicago. There, Mamie grew up and married an amateur boxer. After she bore their son Emmett he left and it was just the two of them. Emmett was smart and smiling, but polio left him with a stutter. The cure? To calm down and whistle. Soon he wanted to visit his cousins in the South, so she let him go. What happened next made history. Her son was murdered for that very whistling, his body returned after Mamie insisted that this crime not be buried. She made the nation look at what had happened to her child. She made people confront harsh, hard, awful truths that they did not want to see. And long after her death, her strength lives on. The end of the book shows what looks like a stained glass window, a woman seated, in silhouette, in front of it. Roses climb the sides. And around the border are the names of twenty Black men, women, and children that have been killed for the color of their skin. Everyone from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd Jr. On the opposite page is a single quote: “Let the people see what I have seen. We have averted our eyes far too long. Everybody needs to know what happened to Emmett Till.” Back matter includes an Author’s Note, an Illustrator’s Note, a suggested soundtrack, vocabulary words, a timeline, and Sources.
Where does the line lay? Where can we say, definitively and without hesitation, that one topic or another is either appropriate or not appropriate for children to learn? This is an old question. Maybe an ancient one. Over the course of my own lifetime I’ve seen a subtle chipping away at what has historically been considered “appropriate” for kids. I’m trying to imagine the 1980s, when I was a child, and what a book on Emmett Till would have even encompassed. Back then we were mostly reliant on the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series (no Emmett Till there) or books by Jean Fritz (not a chance). Had Choosing Brave been released at that time, I honestly don’t think the country would have been ready for it. So what makes this topic not merely acceptable, but desperately needed, today? Perhaps it has something to do with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. Maybe these sparked an awakening not simply in the public consciousness but also in the children’s book publishing industry. However it happened, what makes me so happy about this book is not simply that it exists but that it’s as good as it is. Good intentions are fine and all, but when you get a book as wonderfully written and expertly illustrated as this one, it just shows a level of care and attention that puts the heart at ease.
Words first. And I would go so far as to describe the words in Choosing Brave as “clever”. Now the term “clever” is too often used as an insult, meant to besmirch. Something “clever” is not usually considered heartfelt or emotionally resonant, but I would argue that when thought and care is placed in the writing of a book, that care can be equally referred to as having clever AND caring wordplay. Here, author Angela Joy had a challenge on her hands. As I mentioned before, the Emmett Till story had been told in picture book form before. But considering the difficulty of the subject matter, it makes sense that even the best of these, like A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, spent most of their time covering the facts of the Till case. Choosing Brave takes a different tactic. First and foremost, the title is the key. Choosing Brave. Angela Joy’s goal here is to show that Mamie Till-Mobley is not being honored in this book for merely being the mother of a victim. We follow her life from childhood onward, and throughout the book we see the moments that defined her. The moments when she was faced with the choice of doing the easy thing or the much harder and much braver thing, whether it was sitting at a counter in the face of a furious white man or keeping her baby when others told her to put him in an institution. The focus of this book is on Mamie and by framing the story of Emmett within the story of Mamie’s life and what made her tick, you understand a lot more about what happened after his death. And you understand too why what she did was so much harder. So much braver.
Hard to believe that Choosing Brave is illustrator Janelle Washington’s first picture book. Describing herself on the book’s flap as “a self-taught paper-cut artist from Virginia” it’s true enough that I couldn’t find any other picture books, or really books of any sort, mentioned on her website. Her work here ranges from the evocative to the metaphorical. I think of cut paper as a fairly straightforward medium, but often Ms. Washington would work in clever details that I’d only notice on a reread. For example, when explaining about Mamie’s early life, the book mentions that she was a child of the Great Migration. We then see Mamie held in the arms of her mother, and a path like an arrow points straight to a northern city. The path itself is covered in cotton plants. They’re not mentioned in the text. They’re just a small, significant detail that adds so much context to the book along the way. Then I noticed how certain images repeat themselves. Whenever a man leaves his family behind, be it Mamie’s father or her first husband, he’s always just seen as a silhouette walking off the page. Other details might include how baby Emmett’s heartbeat coming from the womb turns into a thread that he can hold onto on the next page. And I could wax eloquent for days about how Ms. Washington might depict negative space, cutting images out of the black, like Rosa Parks on the bus, or how Mamie is seen in the shadow of the all-white jury that found her child’s murderers not guilty. You can have great written picture books with subpar art and you can have brilliantly illustrated picture books with tepid wordplay. This book truly is what happens when the words are worth of the pictures and the pictures worthy of the words.
Near the end of this book there is a single quote on a pure black page. It reads: “Let the people see what I have seen. We have averted our eyes far too long. Everybody needs to know what happened to Emmett Till.” A little later Angela Joy writes this about the final spread. “.. the story of a mother being denied justice for her murdered Black son, is still so relevant.” It’s why I see it in children’s museums and in films like Till. It’s why we cannot stop talking about this. And it’s why, when you find a book for children that does a better job of explaining a terrible moment in history than most adult titles, you need to sing its praises to the hills. We are currently living through a time when forces in our country are fighting to cover up the awful, horrible, racist moments of our history for fear that the children won’t be able to handle it. It just goes to show how little folks understand about kids. They need truth. Kids, when given books like Choosing Brave will learn so much about the past and how it relates to our present. Let the people see what I have seen. Let the children read this book and others like it. After all, our kids deserve the rarest kind of best, and Joy and Washington’s latest delivers. If Mamie could choose bravery, the literal least we can do is to read about it.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent for review.
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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