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Five questions for John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Lewis_Marchbk3“To the past and future children of the movement,” reads the dedication of March: Book Three (Top Shelf, 14 years and up), the concluding volume in the graphic-novel memoir trilogy about the life of Congressman John Lewis, a sitting congressman since 1987 and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. Congressman Lewis, his coauthor Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell graciously took time out from their busy schedules to discuss activism, collaboration, and the civil rights struggles of yesterday and today.

1. Thank you for sharing your story with young readers. What has been their reaction?

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Congressman John Lewis. Photo: Eric Etheridge

John Lewis: It has been amazing to me. Sometimes we’ll have a signing, and there will be young people sitting or standing quietly just reading the book, not putting it down until it’s their turn in line. I’ve never seen anything like it. Young people, and people not so young, are reading it and telling their friends to read it. People will even come up to me on the street to say, “I love March.”

Nate Powell: People of every age group have connected strongly with the story, identifying with different components of it. A sense of fairness and recognition of injustice seem to be hardwired into kids — I know it was for me, even as an elementary school kid — and I kept that in mind throughout the creation process. My four-year-old daughter regularly requests reading Book One at bedtime; the methods of reading, delivering, and processing the book’s content vary according to a kid’s age and developmental level, but she’s deeply affected by the story, asking follow-up questions for days.

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Andrew Aydin. Photo: Bob Adelman

Andrew Aydin: Nothing surprised me more, and meant more to me, than seeing an entire class of ninth graders mob Congressman Lewis at a book festival. We hadn’t spoken at the festival yet — we were walking back from a sandwich shop when first one student, then another, and another, and another all came up to the Congressman asking for a picture or an autograph. Several of the students had copies of March, and we came to find out that they were reading it in class. To those kids, Congressman Lewis was as important as any actor or athlete or musician — as he should be.

2. Was the series always intended to be a trilogy?

NP: The script arrived in my hands in early 2012 as a single volume, marked at around 270 pages. As I began breaking down the script into pages that worked with my storytelling style and methods, I immediately realized this would be a five hundred to six hundred–page book. During San Diego Comic-Con that summer, we collectively decided that the best approach would simply be to break it up into three books at its natural transition points — it wasn’t until the first book was actually released that we discovered how much more powerful this made the project, allowing readers of different ages and experiences to grow into the increasingly complex and mature themes and content.

AA: Nate suggested the idea that we split it up, and I’m grateful for it. That decision gave the story room to breathe, and let us go deep into the strategy and personal stories that are so essential to the narrative.

3. Did audience figure into discussions of how to depict the violent events?

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Nate Powell. Photo: Rett Peek

NP: Rather than make considerations for the potential audience, the more important discussion was 1) how to depict violence plainly and unflinchingly while avoiding exploiting the violence itself, and 2) how to use the strengths and conventions of comics storytelling to depict violence while actively working against virtually everything I’ve grown up knowing about comic-book violence and its trappings. As a result, when the visual storytelling does its job right, physical violence feels like something you’re seeing for the first time — it is repulsive, shocking, and re-sensitizing, a rarity in comics and other visual pop-media. In that regard, Books Two and Three should read as horror at times.

AA: Our challenge was weaving these brutal, emotional threads in such a way that we didn’t overwhelm the reader. Our process was focused on telling as much of the story as possible while also making it all work together so that when you step back from the anecdotes, the quotes, the speeches, the beatings, there’s a portrait of change and progress.

4. The parallels to America today are striking – and even more so since Book One. What do you hope people will take away from the books that they can apply right now?

NP: What’s most important to me is that a reader develops a sense of continuity with those who came before her — that this is the very same world we occupy, these characters depicted could and may have been a reader’s parents, neighbors, classmates, or even ourselves. I also think it’s crucial to convey that the Movement largely succeeded because of the unwavering dedication of young people willing to risk their comfort, their safety, their lives. These were twenty-year-olds, twenty-five-year-olds. What will you do when you’re twenty? You get to decide.

Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, and John Lewis at Comic-Con 2015. Photo: Justin Eisinger

Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, and John Lewis at Comic-Con 2015. Photo: Justin Eisinger

AA: There are many lessons — tactical lessons, organizing lessons, moral lessons, political lessons — but above all there is a constant refrain of persistence, and unfailing hope in the face of despair. You cannot understand the politics of today without understanding the Civil Rights Movement and the role it played in our society. In so many ways, forces unleashed in response to the Movement have come to dominate our politics, and technology is allowing the same injustices to be seen anew.

I hope March is a guide for today’s activists. It took raw courage for young people to volunteer to go to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, and unrelenting faith in the power of democracy to organize such a massive campaign. In some ways that faith was not rewarded, but their work has echoed now for more than half a century. The parts of the Movement we recognize so well now were not born from a single decision, but were a complicated and messy evolution of ideas and spirits, coming together after a long, hard struggle to triumph in moments when the odds seemed the longest.

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John Lewis and Andrew Aydin accept a 2014 Coretta Scott King Honor award for March: Book One.

JL: The lessons of March say: This is the way another generation did it, and you, too, can follow that path, studying the way of peace, love, and nonviolence, and finding a way to get in the way. Finding a way to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble. But you have to understand the planning, the training, the nitty-gritty organizing — you may work for days or weeks or even months before you see something. But you do it. You’re consistent and you’re persistent, day in and day out.

5. Are we in a “new civil rights” era?

NP: When have we not been in a civil rights struggle? People recognized the era depicted in the book largely because activists gave the media no choice but to pay attention, which in turn forced the public discussion and pressure — and that’s the only thing that forced any binding legal changes and social progress. But this struggle is ongoing. Some components are as old as capitalism, some are as old as human civilization, some are as new as smartphones.

JL: It is an ongoing struggle. I often try to remind people, it is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. We must continue to speak up and speak out for those left out and left behind until we can build a world at peace with itself.

550_Comic-Con 2016 Children's-March by Justin Eisinger

Comic-Con 2016 Children’s March. Photo: Justin Eisinger

From the August 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

To commemorate Black History Month, we will send around a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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Comments

  1. This was a great interview and it was wonderful to hear from inspiring figures like Congressman Lewis. I have yet to read March, but it is certainly on my TBR list now.

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