What is the Civil Rights Movement?  – Sherri L. Smith, illustrated by Tim Foley


 What is the Civil Rights Movement?  – Sherri L. Smith, illustrated by Tim Foley. Penguin Workshop, 2021. 9781524792305

Format: Paperback

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

 Genre: narrative history

 What did you like about the book?  This entry in the popular “What Was…” history series covers the many events that made up the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  It sets the stage for Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis by explaining the historical context of post-Civil War America (focusing primarily on the segregated South), Jim Crow Laws, Plessy vs. Ferguson and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.  It covers  iconic events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, Ruby Bridges and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, as well as lesser known actions like the Children’s Crusade and the Freedom Riders.  It also brings up the fact that there were leaders and organizations like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who disagreed with King’s nonviolent approach.  It is a comprehensive guide to this turbulent period in American history, but ends suddenly in 1968 before wrapping up with a quick conclusion regarding recent and current challenges including the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. 

It is often hard for young readers to comprehend the circumstances and thought processes behind segregation and other racist laws.  The straightforward writing in this book makes some of the more difficult stories easier to read.  Fact boxes throughout the book  provide extra information on such topics as Ida B. Wells and Emmett Till, and there’s  a very interesting commentary on the significance of the rise of television during the time period and the role it played in spreading awareness nationwide and even globally. Sketched illustrations are reproductions of portraits and news photos (some of which appear as actual photos in the back of the book); most of them are not captioned but they correspond with the text on the pages.  Back matter includes the standard timeline format for the “Who? What? Where?” franchise – a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement parallel to a timeline of the World in the same timeframe.  The latter includes significant events such as Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers, and even the appearance of Franklin, the first Black character in the Peanuts cartoon.  A bibliography for further reading includes some fiction classics by Christopher Paul Curtis and Mildred Taylor along with nonfiction suggestions.  

Anything you did not like about the book?   When I picked up the book, I was struck by the title – that it is What IS, not What WAS (as most of the books in this series about historical events are called), implying that the book would address continuing concerns and more recent events, from the 1970s onward.  It is significant for young readers to understand that the Civil Rights Movement was about a lot more than the work of one man.  That’s why the abrupt transition from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the inaugaration of Barack Obama was so startling. I actually thought perhaps the book I was holding was missing some pages.  Forty years passed between the end of page 100 and the top of 101, and the author didn’t even start a new chapter.  Also, students using this book for any type of research would greatly benefit from the addition of an index, and possibly a “Who’s Who” appendix.

 To whom would you recommend this book? Appropriate for students in grades 3 and up, but very densely packed with information.   

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Nonfiction (Dewey 323) or special collection for the series

 Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  no

 Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: 4/1/2021

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