I know that my anticipation for March: Book Three, the final book in John Lewis’s trilogy, matched that of everyone who read the first two graphic novels chronicling the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Obviously, the National Book Award committee felt the same excitement, as it was awarded the Young People’s Literature award a few weeks ago.
The memoir is especially relevant during this election-news dominated period, as part of it recounts the 1964 Democratic Convention. Young readers will likely not know about the Freedom Party Delegation, nor will they know how Lyndon B. Johnson was eventually nominated for president. I imagine that discussing these political parties and machinations will spark engaging civics conversations in the classroom.
Although I am a huge fan of graphic novels, as an English teacher I don’t get to talk about art very much. However, I will here! While the Caldecott committee might be wowed by the story John Lewis tells, their job is to evaluate Nate Powell’s art. On the last page of Book Three, Lewis says he wanted to find an artist to “make the words sing.” He succeeded. The art here exemplifies the Caldecott criterion, “Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept.”
When recommending the books in this trilogy to individual students this fall, I told them these were “graphic” graphic novels. Nate Powell’s art does not romanticize the struggle; it leans into the struggle, right from the start. The prologue describes the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It is difficult, emotionally, to see the ominous black-painted pages and hear the cries of Sunday school students buried under debris. Rather than seeming gratuitous, the art throughout reflects the real violence people endured.
The symbolism of these pages, many drenched in dark ink, seems to creep into the narrative. When Lewis takes a break from the action to speak to the reader, mostly-black pages provide foreshadowing of somber events to follow. It is impressive how much emotion and immediacy is conveyed without the use of color, and the black-and-white images are striking. Clearly (another criterion), the “style of illustration is appropriate to the story, theme or concept.”
Frequently, scenes break out of their frames, especially during protests. Powell is creative with his use of panels, which are often much more dynamic than a simple square or rectangle. When Lewis spends time in the hospital after being beaten by police, the ABC news broadcast is shown on a television-shaped frame. Trapezoidal frames are used to show forward movement; the layout for President Obama’s walk after his inauguration is almost the same as the walk across the bridge in Selma! The Caldecott committee will be rewarded as they discover all the artistic choices Powell makes throughout the story.
Shifting points of view emphasize action and set scene and mood. In any particular scene, readers might watch a meeting as if they were sitting in the balcony, or stare directly into the face of a hostile state trooper. The use of shadows on faces, just like the inky pages, follows the tone of the novel. Graphic elements easily “delineate the plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures.”
This trilogy should be required reading for young adults, including but not limited to those studying the civil rights movement. I hope this concluding volume is discussed late into the evening at ALA Midwinter in Atlanta.