Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
What did you like about the book? This colorful and thoughtful biography of civil rights leader Ella Baker will introduce children to a powerful but often overlooked leader. Powell starts with Baker’s childhood and her parent’s repeated question, which became a theme for her life’s work: What do you hope to accomplish? Very difficult concepts are introduced in plain language, among them, colorism, sharecropping, the “Buy Where You Can Work” movement, NAACP, lunch counter boycotts and Baker’s work with MLK. The text almost reads like free verse, with internal rhythms that flow easily. Baker’s insistent focus on grassroots organizing, on getting to know and learn from women, the poor, the overlooked is celebrated as novel and powerful.
The book’s overall design aesthetic is sophisticated but accessible, much like Baker herself. Acrylic gouache with visible brush strokes imparts certainty and motion to the illustrations. Each double page layout is compelling and rewards careful study: Ella as a child sitting on her mother’s lap as they look out at sharecroppers picking cotton, but also at neighbors helping to install a bell in a modest church’s steeple. Freedom Riders, their arms crossed in solidarity, singing in front of a searing blue sky while behind them, their bus bursts into flames. Bright, modern colors and the large format of the pages would make this a good choice for a read aloud. A closing essay provides more details on Baker’s life, along with a timeline and sources.
Anything you didn’t like about it? No. Students will have a lot of questions about the concepts but the book could be a natural jumping off point for research.
To whom would you recommend this book? Teachers in grades 3-5 looking for more read alouds on social justice or American heroes. The refrain of “What do you want to accomplish?” could be a great writing prompt. Students could look for people in their own communities who represent the “Lift as you climb” ethos or who have adopted Baker’s grassroots organizing mentality.
Who should buy this book? All elementary schools and public libraries.
Where would you shelve it? Biography
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes. This is a beautiful and enjoyable book that will find a ready audience.
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: January 16, 2021