So much of history is in the telling. When presented as a recitation of facts, dates, events, it can be pretty dry, as anyone who took World History 101 in college can probably confirm (the most exciting thing was waiting for the prof to nod off during the lecture). But when made personal, when fleshed out with actual people and details and colorful back stories, then it comes alive and suddenly seems relevant to your life.
Such is the case with the Civil Rights Movement. Arguably one of the most important periods in our country's history, and a time chock-full of passion, dedication, emotion and fevered anxiety on all sides -- and yet, for many kids, I suspect this too has been boiled down to a timeline of key events. Critical to know, of course, but not very real, not very personal.
Into that gap rides Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend. Belle epitomizes the quality that exists in nonfiction picture books today; authors Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud have done their homework, taken a story rooted in actual fact and brought it to life with the introduction of some wholly believable fictional characters. Coupled with the extraordinary artistic renderings of John Holyfield, the result is a knock-out piece of publishing that belongs on every library and classroom shelf.
The story centers around the people of Gee's Bend, Alabama, and the part they played in the struggle for civil rights for all citizens. "Benders", as these folks were known, didn't have much, but they had determination and belief in the cause. Stirred by a visit from Dr Martin Luther King Jr., the Benders pluck up the courage to take the ferry to Camden and register to vote. Upon arriving there, they are stopped by the white sheriff, who has shut the ferry down. But the Benders will not be swayed -- instead, they pack up their wagons and hitch up their mules, Belle included, and make the trip all the way around the river to register.
It's not a peaceful resolution. Life in Gee's Bend gets even harder in the wake of the backlash that results from their actions. But the Benders soldier on. And then in April 1968, Dr King is killed. The grief that sweeps through the nation is felt even more strongly in Gee's Bend. But some of that grief is eased when the Benders find out that it was Dr King's wish to have mules pull the wagon with his coffin. And so Belle and Ada, the mules of Gee's Bend, become part of history, a further manifestation of all the quiet determination of their owners and others who fought for civil rights.
Framing the story around young Alex, who has come to Gee's Bend with his mother and hears the story from Belle's owner, is a touch of genius on Ramsey and Stroud's part. They skillfully weave in the interaction between Alex and Miz Pettway, making Belle's tale an organic part of the conversation. And in so doing, they bring home the impact of history. Young readers will mirror Alex's dawning realization, as he comes to recognize that the people he's learned about in school were flesh and blood, just like himself and his family, not just characters in a book. Talk about bringing history to life -- Ramsey and Stroud do it in such a way that readers won't even think about this as a tale from "long ago". Vivid, emotional details in the illustrations emphasize the reality even further, from the gentle smiles of the Gee's Bend quilters to the placid dignity of Belle and Ada, pulling Dr King's coffin through the streets.
Read this one with your kids, with your students, or just for yourself. Read it and remember.
Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, published by Candlewick Press
Sample: "But we must have scared the white folks in Camden, because the next thing we knew, they shut down the ferry. The white sheriff was a big bully who wanted to keep us in our place. He told reporters, 'We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.'"
Bonus: interview with illustrator John Holyfield at The Brown Bookshelf