Today marks the first day of Black History Month here in the United States. While I have mixed feelings about this type of observation -- Black history is ongoing, and our discussions about the history of people of color in our nation shouldn't be confined to one 28 day period -- I do appreciate every attempt to bring diversity into the spotlight. I also applaud efforts like that of The Brown Bookshelf, which sponsors the 28 Days Later series featuring profiles of African American authors and illustrators of children's literature.
These sorts of events bring even more opportunities for Sprout and other children of color to learn about heroes who look like them. And that's important to me, as a parent, because role models are so crucial, both in terms of people you know in your everyday life and those you read and hear about. Because, let's face it: our country was not forged through the efforts of white males alone, but through the blood, sweat, tears and hopes of people of all colors, genders, religions, backgrounds, classes, nationalities, livelihoods, sexual orientations, abilities and ages -- whether or not the history books mention them.
I was thrilled to read today's pick not only because it's by a tremendous author/illustrator but because it takes a pivotal event in African American history -- the March on Washington -- and translates it into a picture book that is accessible and appealing to preschoolers. Shane W. Evans's We March accomplishes this by honing in on one family, relating their experience in participating in this historic event from August 28, 1963.
The book follows father, mother and two children as they rise in the wee hours of the morning, gather at their church and prepare for the day's events. The family paints signs and prays with others, then joins their leaders in a peaceful march through the nation's capital. The crowd Evans depicts is diverse, with young and old, male and female, well and infirm, black and white. "We walk together," writes Evans, picturing the family walking alongside the other marchers. "We sing."
The final spreads in the book shows the family listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Evans's last illustration of the great leader is a stirring one, with the brilliant sun shining behind him and Dr. King's powerful words, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!" shimmering in the distance. In an afterword, Evans provides an historical context for the events of the day, a nice addition for those planning to use this title in a larger unit on African American history.
What makes We March so memorable, for me, are the simplicity of Evans's narration, and his outstanding illustrations. Every time we pull this off the book stack Sprout just pores over it - not because of intricate detail, because these spreads are very clean and focused, but because of the urgency of the pictures. You feel the excitement radiating from the family, not just from the words but from the images themselves. You feel caught up in the spirit of the march, feel the pull of the enormity of the event as Evans pushes back to feature the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Though the events they depict are fifty years gone, Evans's illustrations give the March on Washington an immediacy that brings readers right into the moment, and keeps them there.
As you choose books to read with your children this month, consider how you'll present African American history. Do we remember because it has happened, or do we remember because it is still happening, today, unfolding around us? The history of African Americans, like that of all citizens, affects us all in deep and profoundly moving ways -- and by sharing excellent titles like We March, we can make that history as much present as it ever was past.
We March by Shane W. Evans, published by Roaring Brook Press
Sample: "We are hot and tired, but we are filled with hope. / We lean on each other / as we march to justice, / to freedom, / to our dreams."