January 17 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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About the Holiday

Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates the life and legacy of the man who dedicated his life and work to teaching—as Coretta Scott King stated—“the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service” and led a non-violent Civil Rights movement to enact racial equality and justice throughout state and federal law. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, setting it on the third Monday of January to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 15. The holiday was officially observed in all 50 states in 2000. Today, learn more about the life and work of Martin Luther King and how you can help promote justice and equality for all. Consider volunteering in your community where help is needed

I’d like to sincerely thank Alice Faye Duncan for sharing a digital copy of Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968

Written by Alice Faye Duncan | Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

 

Informed by the memories of Dr. Almella Starks-Umoja, a teacher who as a child participated in the sanitation strike and told through the eyes of fictional nine-year-old Lorraine, Alice Faye Duncan relates the story of the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King just a day after giving his final sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Mason Temple Church in support of the strike.

Through thirteen titled vignettes composed of lyrical and powerful language, Duncan reveals the detailed facts and emotions of those days that changed lives, altered the Civil Rights movement, and still resonate today. Duncan begins with “Memphis—1968” in which Lorraine describes a Memphis roiled by “the stinking sanitation strike” when “Black men marched for honor” and she also marched “with red ribbon in [her] hair.” She entreats the reader: “You must tell the story—so that no one will forget it.”

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Image copyright R. Gregory Christie, 2018, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2018. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

“Mud Puddles” tells of the moment in January when Lorraine’s father comes home so “distressed and out of breath” that Lorraine’s muddy shoeprints are forgotten by her mama as he tells them about his two fellow sanitation workers and friends—Echol Cole and Robert Walker—who were killed when a truck’s packer blade malfunctioned. “Daddy told Mama, ‘It ain’t right to die like that.’ / Mama shook her head, and I saw a new storm rising up. / I saw it in their eyes.”

In “Marching Orders” Lorraine lays out the ugly conditions sanitation workers like her father toiled under and introduces readers to Mayor Loeb, who refused to increase their wages from $1.70 an hour. She states, “When they could take the abuse no more, 1,300 men deserted their garbage barrels. They organized a labor strike on February 12, 1968. In the morning and afternoon, for sixty-five days, sanitation workers marched fourteen blocks through the streets of downtown Memphis.”

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Image copyright R. Gregory Christie, 2018, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2018. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

As the strike continued through the winter, “[crippling] garbage collection with terrific success,” “Winter Blues” depicts the sacrifices Lorraine’s family made, from going without electricity to missing bill payments to skipping treats or getting anything new. But Lorraine also “learned what the grown folks knew. Trouble visits every life. But as strikers marched through sun and rain, help came in many forms.” Two of these were a group of Memphis preachers who helped strikers pay bills and the NAACP.

Winter turns to spring with no concessions from Mayor Loeb and no end to the strike in sight. But then in “Martin” Lorraine learns in the newspapers her mama’s boss gave her that Martin Luther King Jr. would be coming to support the striking workers. “Silver Rights” recounts Lorraine’s memories of listening to Dr. King, his voice “loud and stirring” when he said, “‘All labor has dignity.’” He set the date of March 22nd when he would march with the striking workers. Lorraine’s daddy and mama vowed to be there. And as she recalled, “then Mama patted my hand and said, ‘We will take Lorraine. She can march with us.’” A haiku “Omen” reveals the cancellation of the march.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-memphis-martin-and-the-mountaintop-mud-puddles

Image copyright R. Gregory Christie, 2018, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2018. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

In “Beale Street,” Lorraine explains more about Dr. King’s dreams and work and his crusade he named “the ‘Poor People’s Campaign.’” The march was rescheduled for March 28, and on that day “Six thousand people—blacks, whites, men, women, and children—gathered in downtown Memphis. / Police stood guard with tear gas, billy clubs, and guns.” When looters shattered storefront windows, the police moved in, spraying tear gas and beating people.” Lorraine became separated from her mother but was swept to safety by her father. Following the riot, the National Guard was called in and a curfew put in place.

In the aftermath of the riot, Dr. King left Memphis, Lorraine tells readers in “Dreamers.” But he had promised to return despite death threats, and on April 3 he flew from his home in Atlanta to Memphis. It was a stormy night, but Lorraine and her family along with many others packed Mason Temple Church to hear Dr. King preach. But when they got there, Dr. King’s friend Ralph Abernathy told the crowd that Dr. King was too sick to appear.

Other people gave speeches about the strike, and Lorraine had fallen asleep in her mother’s arms when “KABOOM! A voice like the evening thunder shook me from my sleep.” In his booming voice, Dr. King “charged men, women, and children to make the world a promised land flowing with freedom and justice” and “encouraged Memphis strikers and strike supporters to march, boycott, and raise their voices for worker rights until victory was won.”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-memphis-martin-and-the-mountaintop-marching-orders

Image copyright R. Gregory Christie, 2018, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2018. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

In “Lorraine” the narrator reveals that her name is the same as the Memphis motel where Dr. King lost his life. She recounts his last hour spent with friends and the moment when he steps out onto the balcony and James Earl Ray shot him from a boarding house nearby. In other cities across the country grief-fueled protests broke out, but Memphis was relatively quiet. As Lorraine listened to the radio that night, she wrote a poem “The King is Dead” that her mama hung on the wall of their rented house.

“Black Widow” relates the events of April 8, when Coretta Scott King fulfilled her husband’s promise to march for the Memphis sanitation workers. Along with 40,000 other people—“ministers, labor leaders, political figures, entertainers, and everyday people”—from Memphis and around the country, Lorraine and her parents marched. In “Victory on a Blue Note,” the Memphis Sanitation Strike comes to an end when president Lyndon B. Johnson sent a labor official to negotiate a settlement. The men received a pay increase and promotions based on merit, not race. As Lorraine’s daddy and mama celebrate, Lorraine reveals what she has learned: “So much was won. / So much was lost. / Freedom is never free.”

An inspirational poem for all readers, “Mountaintop” closes the book. Back matter includes an extensive and detailed timeline as well as information on the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and a list of sources.

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Image copyright R. Gregory Christie, 2018, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2018. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

In Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, Alice Faye Duncan’s use of a nine-year-old narrator makes her book even more powerful for today’s children in telling the story of the Memphis sanitation strike and the world-changing events surrounding it. Duncan intertwines conviction, pride, activism, and heartbreak together in her compelling and lyrical snapshots that reveal the facts and emotions behind this pivotal Civil Rights and economic rights protest for a living wage for all Americans. Children’s hearts will be filled with empathy for Lorraine as she supports her father, accepts the sacrifices her family must make during the strike, joins her mother in marches, and fears for the safety of the strikers and Martin Luther King Jr.

The life and work of Dr. King, his influence, and the hope he embodied as well as his shocking assassination are all encapsulated in Duncan’s concise paragraphs, allowing readers to understand his enduring inspiration to all who fight injustice. By overlaying the text with descriptions of the volatile weather experienced during the winter and spring of 1968, Duncan amplifies the fearful atmosphere of the times in a metaphorical way that will resonate with readers. Lorraine’s growth and insight gleaned from her experiences will stay with readers long after they read the story.

R. Gregory Christie’s dramatic collage-style gouache paintings set off Duncan’s vignettes with bold blocks of color while inviting readers to experience the determination, community, and dignity of the workers fighting for the universal desire for and right to recognition, safety, and a living wage. Christie’s illustrations are all the more evocative for their varied use of perspective, subtle glimpses of hope and support, and moving portraits of Lorraine’s father, strikers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Lorraine herself. The death of Dr. King is depicted in a tiny image of the Lorraine motel balcony on which three men pointing upward, a kneeling figure, and the fallen Dr. King are all portrayed in silhouette. The intense focus the reader puts on this image increases its effect on the heart and mind.

Compelling, moving, and inspirational, Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 is a must-read for all children. The book is a first-rate choice for home libraries and belongs in every school and public library.

Ages 7 and up

Calkins Creek, 2018 | ISBN 978-1629797182

Discover more about Alice Faye Duncan and her books on her website.

To learn more about R. Gregory Christie, his books, and his art, visit his website.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Activity

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Martin Luther King Jr. Portrait

 

To inspire your dreams of a better future for all, color this printable page and hang it in your room!

Martin Luther King Jr. Portrait 

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You can find Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

December 7 – National Letter Writing Day

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About the Holiday

Many young wishers know all about writing letters in December, so it should come as no surprise that a letter-writing day be included in this month’s calendar. Today’s holiday celebrates all forms of personal communication written by hand and remembers correspondences from the past that have given us such insight into our favorite poets, novelists, historical figures, and more. Sure, email might be faster, but there’s a certain luxury in taking the time to write your thoughts on paper as well as an palpable excitement in holding a heartfelt letter in your hands. Today’s book also reminds us that letters can often change minds, hearts, and actions.

Dear Mr. Dickens

Written by Nancy Churnin | Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe

 

Like most people at the time, Eliza Davis looked forward to every new story Charles Dickens published in his weekly magazine, All the Year Round. And when he began publishing books, she eagerly read those too. “What made Charles Dickens a hero in Eliza’s eyes is that he used the power of his pen to help others.” After people read about the harsh conditions children faced at workhouses, they demanded change. And when they “were moved to tears by tales of families struggling in desperate, dirty conditions, they gave what they could to charities. As did Eliza.” 

But while reading Oliver Twist, there was one aspect of the story that distressed Eliza. As a follower of the Jewish faith, she was disturbed by Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin as an “‘old shriveled Jew'” who taught Oliver how to steal. Fagin was “described…as dishonest, selfish, cruel, and ugly.” And each time she read “the Jew,…the word hurt like a hammer on Eliza’s heart.” Prejudice against Jews in England was already bad, and Eliza felt Dickens’ stories would made conditions worse.

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Image copyright Bethany Stancliffe, 2021, text copyright Nancy Churnin, 2021. Courtesy of Albert Whitman & Company.

She decided to write a letter to Charles Dickens, but she worried about his reaction. In her letter she said that his “portrayal of Fagin encouraged ‘a vile prejudice.’ She asked him to ‘atone for a great wrong.'” As she posted her letter, she wondered if she would get a response. About two weeks later, Eliza did receive an answer to her letter. In it Dickens replied that Fagin was based on real criminals and that there there were “other bad people in the book who are not Jewish.” He took exception to her request to atone by saying that “any Jewish people who thought him unfair or unkind…were not ‘sensible’ or ‘just’ or ‘good tempered.'”

Eliza was disheartened as she read the letter, and she sat down and composed another letter in response. Thinking of Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, Eliza reminded him of his past love for the novel Ivanhoe, which included positive, noble Jewish characters. She mentioned his present novel, in which while “some of his non-Jewish characters were criminals, all his Jewish characters were criminals.” Then she stated that future readers would “judge him by how he judged others.”

This time Eliza did not receive an answer. She knew that Dickens was working on a new novel, and when it began to appear serialized in monthly installments, she hurried to buy them, wondering if there would be other Jewish characters and how they would be depicted. When, as she read Our Mutual Friend, she realized Dickens had included another Jewish character, she trembled, wondering what they would be like. 

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Image copyright Bethany Stancliffe, 2021, text copyright Nancy Churnin, 2021. Courtesy of Albert Whitman & Company.

Eliza was elated to see that Mr. Riah – named after the Hebrew word for friend, re’a – was “generous and loyal” and that a young girl he helps remarks about the Jews, “‘I think there cannot be kinder people in the world.'” She immediately sat down to pen another letter to Charles Dickens. This one thanking him for his great compliment to her and the Jewish people. He wrote back with much pleasure and revealed that in the future he wanted his work to reflect his true friendship with Jewish people.

To show his sincerity, he published essays condemning prejudice and in the reprint of Oliver Twist, he replaced mentions of “the Jew” with Fagin’s name so as to “make it clear that Fagin didn’t represent all Jewish people.” Eliza sent Charles Dickens one more letter – this time with the gift of an English-Hebrew Bible – praising his ability to right a wrong, and Dickens responded with one more letter thanking Eliza for speaking up.

An extensive Author’s Note reveals more about the history of prejudice against Jewish people in England from the 1200s until 1846, when attitudes began to change and a repressive law was repealed. Nancy Churnin also includes more details about Eliza Davis the communications between her and Charles Dickens, and Dickens’ daughter upon his death. Source Notes and acknowledgments are also included.

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Image copyright Bethany Stancliffe, 2021, text copyright Nancy Churnin, 2021. Courtesy of Albert Whitman & Company.

Nancy Churnin’s compelling story about the facts surrounding the correspondence between Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens shines a spotlight on a little-known, but important series of events in the life and inspiration behind Dickens’ growth and responsiveness as a writer. Eliza Davis, who acted on her convictions with confidence and courage, makes an inspiring role model for children who may want to voice their opinions on wrongs they see, read, or hear about.

Churnin’s introduction of A Christmas Carol, a novel that most children and adults know, allows readers to understand the important and influential connection between a person’s thoughts, words, and writing and their actions. It also provides a deeper resonance to Eliza Davis’s reminder to Dickens of his past, present, and future and to Dickens own change of heart from his first reply to Eliza to his portrayal of the Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend and his other actions.

Bethany Stancliffe takes readers back to the the 1800s in her rich illustrations full of details of the period. Kids will be interested to see how authors published their work at the time. Her faithful depictions of Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens informs readers on the influence that a young person had on such an established and lauded author. Eliza’s pleasure in Dickens’ stories and her pain on encountering the prejudicial portrayal of Jewish characters is clear, which makes her dilemma all the more meaningful. The final spread, in which Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, facing each other, are connected by the letters they exchanged.

An important story about a beloved author and the woman who influenced his work and life, Dear Mr. Dickens will spark conversations on issues of prejudice, standing up for ones beliefs, personal change, courage to address wrongs, and many other topics. The book is highly recommended for home bookshelves and a must for school and public libraries.

Ages 4 – 8

Albert Whitman & Company, 2021 | ISBN 978-0807515303

Discover more about Nancy Churnin and her books on her website.

To learn more about Bethany Stancliffe, her books, and her art, visit her website.

National Letter Writing Day Activity

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Fashion a Quill Pen

 

Writing a proper letter is more fun with a fancy pen! you can fashion your own quill pen or liven up a ballpoint pen or a marker with this craft!

Supplies

  • Medium to large size feather with quill, available at craft stores (optional)
  • Ballpoint pen or marker (optional)
  • Clay, oven-bake or air-dry, in various colors if desired
  • Wire, beads, paint, and/or markers for decorating     
  • Scissors
  • Baking pan for oven-bake clay

Directions

  1. Roll clay 2 ½ inches to 4 inches long 
  2. Push the quill end of the feather into the clay OR cover the ballpoint pen or marker in clay
  3. Add bits of clay or roll sections of the clay between your fingers to give the clay shape
  4. To make the twisted shape pen, twist the length of clay around itself before adding the feather
  5. Shape the end or cut it with scissors to make the pointed writing nib
  6. If using air-dry clay: Add beads and/or wire and let clay dry around feather
  7. If using oven-bake clay: Add beads and other layers of clay before baking then carefully remove feather. Bake clay according to package directions
  8. Add wire and other decorations after clay has baked and cooled
  9. Reinsert feather into clay

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You can find Dear Mr. Dickens at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

October 25 – It’s Middle Grade Monday

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Review by Jakki Licare

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

By Janae Marks

 

Synopsis

This synopsis contains spoilers

Zoe, an aspiring baker, receives a letter on her 12th birthday from her biological father, Marcus, who is incarcerated for murder. She’s sure her mother won’t let her read his letter so she secretly hides it. She isn’t sure if she should write back because her bio dad must be a monster to have murdered someone. But he sounds so nice in the letter that Zoe decides to write back just this once to see if she can get some answers. As she’s trying to write back to her dad, her ex-best friend and next-door neighbor, Trevor, tries to hang out with her. After making it clear that they aren’t friends anymore, Zoe finishes her letter and mails it.

Zoe discovers that the Food Network is auditioning kids for a children’s baking show, and she begs her mom and step dad to let her audition. They aren’t sure if she’s ready, but they agree to think about it and even get her an internship at a local bakery. Over the next couple of weeks, Zoe sneaks out letters as she writes back and forth with Marcus. Zoe tells Marcus about her job at the bakery and how she wants to make her own recipe. Marcus tells her about his life in prison and how he’s going to college online. He suggests she tries to make a cereal cupcake.

After some prodding from Zoe, Marcus confesses that he’s innocent of his crime, but had a bad lawyer and ended up wrongly convicted. Zoe wants to continue writing to Marcus, but doesn’t like hiding it from her mom, so she asks her mom if she can write to Marcus. Her mother absolutely refuses, and Zoe decides she must keep lying.

Zoe is sickened by the idea that her dad is innocent and stuck in jail, but what if he’s just lying to her? Zoe decides to do some research at the library. Trevor finds her reading books about incarceration, and he listens as she explains that she wants to find out if her dad is really innocent. He helps her research and they start to talk. Zoe confesses she heard him bad mouth her to his basketball friends. Trevor apologizes and they decide to work things out.

Zoe decides she must find Marcus’s alibi witness and find out if Marcus is telling the truth or not. She begs Marcus for the name of his alibi witness and sets off trying to find the lady he met at a tag sale. She hits a lot of dead ends, but with Trevor’s help she stumbles across the person who fits the description Marcus gave her.

Unable to reach the woman by email, Zoe and Trevor sneak off to Harvard, where she teaches. When they find her, she says she doesn’t remember Marcus. Zoe is devastated that she trusted Marcus. She thinks that he must have been lying to her and that he did kill someone. Zoe and Trevor get back late, and their parents are furious that they ran off. While Zoe is waiting for her mom to get home, she gets a text from the professor saying she does remember Marcus and to call her back.

Zoe’s mom is furious when she finds out why Zoe went to Harvard on her own and absolutely livid to discover that she’s been secretly writing to Marcus. She takes away Zoe’s phone before she can call the professor back. Several days later Zoe’s mom and step dad tell her they’ve been in contact with the professor and that she did have an alibi for Marcus.

Over the next several weeks, a friend of her stepdad who is a lawyer and lawyers from the Innocence Project work together to assemble a case to appeal Marcus’s verdict. When they take it to trial, Marcus and his attorneys win. At the end, Zoe’s mom admits that she was wrong about Marcus and shouldn’t have thrown out Zoe’s letters. Zoe is still grounded for lying and running off to Harvard, but she uses the time to reconnect with her family. On his next birthday, Marcus gets to celebrate with his family at home. And while Zoe never realizes her dream to audition for the Food Network show, she does create a cupcake based on her dad’s suggestion, and the bakery where she’s interning adds it to their menu. She’s proud to take this as a success.

Review

 

Janae Marks’ uplifting and timely contemporary novel takes you on a quest for justice that is filled with memorable characters and strong friendships. From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a compelling introduction for kids to the problem of racism in our justice system and will open up a lot of meaningful discussions.

Zoe is a spunky, upbeat, and determined twelve-year-old middle-class twelve-year-old. It’s her determination that ultimately brings about Marcus’s appeal, but we also see Zoe’s determination through multiple facets of her life. I love how she’s willing to prove to her parents she’s ready to audition for the Food Network. I like how she gives herself her own challenges too. No one asks her to come up with her own recipe, but she tackles that task and the problems involved in creating her own recipe herself. She doesn’t give up after the first batch of cupcakes comes out too sweet, but instead spends her time problem solving. She creates a system of small batches of cupcakes with different amounts of sugar until she finds the perfect recipe.  

Marks tackles the incredibly complex issue of wrongful incarceration with beautiful sensitivity. This is highlighted in the way Marks slowly changes commonly held views of prisoners. Zoe starts off reading her father’s letter and being surprised that he sounds nice instead of like a scary villain from a tv show. Marks also debunks the idea that only guilty people go to jail, a concept that many young readers may not understand. She introduces statistics on how black men are more likely to go to jail than white men and shows that an indifferent lawyer can lead to wrongful conviction.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington never feels depressing because Marks balances Zoe’s ambition of becoming a pastry chef along with her father’s storyline. Marks even manages to tie the two together by having Marcus make a suggestion in his letter to make a cereal cupcake. Forgiveness is a strong theme in From the Desk of Zoe Washington. In the beginning, Zoe is not speaking to her best friend Trevor, and he has no clue why. It isn’t until almost halfway through the book that we learn she heard Trevor dissing her to his teammates.

Marks does a superb job in showing how awkward it is to discuss hurt feelings but also how necessary it is to talk them through so there’s a chance for understanding and forgiveness. Here’s how Zoe describes her impressions of their conversation: “But it was like when you drew something in pencil and then tried to erase it—the pencil lines would mostly go away, but sometimes the indent would still be there, so you could still sort of see what had been erased. That’s how Trevor’s apology felt….”

Zoe’s mom also has her own issues with talking through problems. She’s so devastated by Marcus’s arrest that she closes off her heart and is unwilling to let Marcus hurt her baby. Zoe’s mom apologizes at the end, but Marks gives us enough of the scenario to see why Zoe’s Mom felt so betrayed. I think kids can relate to and learn a lot from these story lines leading to an understanding of how to open up to others.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an outstanding middle-grade read for those interested in social justice and the intricacies of family relationships and friendship. If your kids enjoy Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous or Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, then From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a must read. 

Parental Considerations: racism, racial slurs, and talk of murder.

Ages 8-12

Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins, 2020 | ISBN 978-0062875853

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You can find From the Desk of Zoe Washington at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review