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Children's Books About Civil Rights Hero John Lewis

July 24, 2020

The death of John Lewis from pancreatic cancer on July 17 marks the passing of a moral giant. Lewis-civil rights icon, congressperson, activist, and author-called us again and again to be better, to speak up, to act out, to get in the way, to make "good trouble" when things are not right. It was a life well lived, but it is still a tremendous loss.

The children in our homes and in our classrooms need to learn about John Lewis' life and contributions to making things fairer and more just in our country. Here is a selection of books just right for younger readers and learners.

Did you know that Lewis' childhood nickname was "Preacher?" Growing up the third of 10 children on his sharecropper parents' farm, he was given the job of taking care of the family's chickens when he was only five years old. Taking cues from Sundays spent in church, young Lewis would give sermons to the flock, sharing Bible verses with them and even baptizing them. His work with the chickens was a training of sorts for a lifetime of public speaking and exhortation.

Author Jabari Asim's lyrical text is beautifully paired with award winning illustrator E.B. Lewis' luminous watercolors to present a tender and moving story of how promise can be so present in one so young. This is an engaging nonfiction text perfect for the elementary school classroom, or for a gently paced family read-aloud.

Growing up in Alabama during Jim Crow, Lewis knew that things were not as they should be, but his parents counseled him to not get in the way. As a teenager, he heard Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio speak out against segregation, setting Lewis on a course very different from the one his parents advised. 

Focusing on Lewis' leadership in the civil rights movement as a young man still in this twenties, including the March on Selma known as Bloody Sunday (where he was severely beaten), this picture book is ideal for children in grades 3 to 5. The narrative action of the book, climaxing in the events on the Edmund Pettus bridge, draws the reader in. The oil paint and fabric collage illustrations by acclaimed artist Benny Andrews are a prime example of the artistic merits of picture books. 

John Lewis first came to national prominence in May 1961 as one of the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of activists who set out to challenge the segregation still practiced on interstate buses traveling in the South. Lewis was then a student at American Baptist College right here in Nashville, where he had participated in nonviolent resistance workshops led by James Lawson. Others involved in Nashville Student Movement included Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and later, Jim Zwerg, a white student on a semester long exchange program at Fisk University. Lewis and Zwerg would both participate in the Freedom Rides, repeatedly enduring  physical attacks and bodily injury, an instance of which was documented in a now famous photograph.

This thoroughly researched volume is chock full of photographs, maps, first-person quotes, and more. It also includes a partial roster of Freedom Riders. This is an excellent text for an upper elementary or middle school research project.

All of the above books are available via curbside pickup at NPL. If you or your children are fans of graphic novels, be sure to check out the March trilogy authored by John Lewis himself, and for which he won a National Book Award. Even as an elder statesman, Lewis knew how to share his story so that we may be guided by it.

Klem-Mari Cajigas

Klem-Marí Cajigas

In a former life, Klem-Marí was a Religious Studies scholar. She much prefers being the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life! She wants you to read and share books with the children in your life, and for those children to see you to read as well. Originally from Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí also enjoys her cat, baking, yoga, and the works of Octavia Butler.