Birmingham, 1963

Fifty years ago today, four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertsonwere killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Looking back at that tragedy, you can’t help but note the irony that this terrorist act led to results that were the opposite of what the killers had intended. Instead of obliterating the movement, it ignited it and led to the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Birmingham 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford

What a tight-wire challenge such a topic must be for a children’s book writer. Acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, with characteristic sensitivity and awareness of her audience, has written of that tragedy in her beautiful and moving collection Birmingham, 1963Her free verse features the perspective of a fictional 10-year-old girl, who, along with her family, participated in the Civil Rights movement. The girl shares her observations of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington, her protests at whites-only lunch counters, and her arrest, along with hundreds of other young ones, in the courageous Children’s Crusade.

There are moments of simple joy, as when she’s allowed to drink coffee and when she puts on her shiny new “cha-cha” shoes. But on Sunday morning the church was blown to bits, except for a stained-glass window depicting Christ, his face obliterated. Four children murdered, nearly two dozen injured, a nation outraged at last.

“The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.”

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.”

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This powerful book is enhanced by its simple design, small size, and its numerous, well-chosen black-and-white photographs. If you are looking for singular poetry for upper-elementary or middle-school students in hopes of initiating discussions of this tragedy or of the Civil Rights movement, you will find it here in abundance.

I’m excited to share the news that Carole has graciously offered to do 50 free Skype visits with K-12 classes or with college education classes. I can tell you from firsthand experience that Carole Boston Weatherford is a fantastic author, teacher, and presenter. When she visited my school library six years ago, she was vibrant, superbly prepared, and absolutely engaging with each of her three young audiences. Take her up on her offer while you can!

See also …   

 my prior post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu


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Catch This Bus

Kittinger, Jo. S. Rosa’s Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights. Illus. by Steven Walker. Calkins Creek, 2010. Ages 6-9.

Many children’s books relate the story of Rosa Parks and her refusal to vacate her seat for a white man. This picture book, however, zooms in on the actual bus — #2867, which began its journey in 1948 on the assembly line in Michigan and ended up getting restored and displayed in the Henry Ford Museum in 2003. Kittinger keeps the story rolling along, undeterred by superfluous details. Walker’s colorful oil paintings, especially those of the bus, add to the kid appeal. After Rosa’s arrest, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott, which “went on and on. No dimes jingle-jangled in the coin box. Day after day, week after week, month after month, Bus #2357 rode down the street with plenty of empty seats.” After 382 days, the boycott ended with the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed race-based discrimination. Use this book and the author’s suggested activities to enhance children’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and their appreciation of the perseverance of those who participated. The bibliography provides noteworthy sources for those who want more details.

Shelton, Paula Young. Child of the Civil Rights Movement. Illus. by Raul Colon. Schwartz & Wade, 2009. Ages 5-9.

This first-time author is a daughter of Civil Rights leader Andrew Young and a first-grade teacher, experiences that enrich her engaging, child-friendly true story. Using simple, rhythmic language, she describes how her family moves from New York to Atlanta to work for the end of “Jim Crow, / where whites could / but blacks could not”). Famous leaders in the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., are not cast as distant gods but as folks who ate and laughed and prayed together. Colón’s soft-colored pencil-and-wash illustrations evoke the affection shared among the activists. Children will laugh upon learning of Shelton’s first protest: She sat on the floor and wailed when a Holiday Inn restaurant in Atlanta refused to serve her family.  One aspect that particularly recommends this book to children is its hopeful, positive tone, with its emphasis on community and respect. The story’s triumphant end shows Paula and her family joining the world-changing march from Selma to Montgomery. A brief bibliography and biographical notes provide additional information.

Other Recommended Titles for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Leave a comment to share your favorite children’s book related to MLK!

Michelson, Richard.  As Good as Anybody:Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom. Illus. by Raul Colón. Knopf, 2008. Ages 6-10. Michelson provides an interesting perspective in this 2009 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner. He focuses on two peaceful heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an ally, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Michelson invites readers to consider the parallels between the two leaders and their experiences. Both experienced hostility and prejudice in their homeland. Both overcame it with love, faith, and wisdom. Colón’s illustrations illuminate both the individual experiences (King’s story features an earthy palette, Heschel’s a blue one) and the similarities, as when he depicts the hateful signs that say “Whites Only” and then the ones proclaiming “No Jews Allowed.” In the final pages, the colors blend together, showcasing the diverse people who joined the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Rappaport, Doreen. Martin’s Big Words. Jump at the Sun, 2001. Illus. by Bryan Collier. Ages 5-10. Rappaport weaves her own well-chosen words with those of King’s, resulting in a concise, poetic, and respectful picture-book biography of King. Teaming up with Collier was an inspired touch, as his amazing painted collages lend this book so much power and beauty. Martin’s Big Words won both the Coretta Scott King Honor and the Caldecott Honor for its stellar illustrations.

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