Choosing Brave

[Many Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement
by Angela Joy; illus. by Janelle Washington
Primary, Intermediate    Roaring Brook    64 pp.    g
8/22    978-1-250-22095-0    $19.99

This powerful picture-book biography reverently portrays the life of Mamie Till-Mobley (1921–2003), whose defiant act of bravery following the 1955 murder of her son, Emmett, brought a spiritual essence to — and helped ignite — the civil rights movement. Joy’s (Black Is a Rainbow Color, rev. 1/20) lyrical free-verse narrative opens on August 31, 1955, when “the sheriff set out to dig a grave…to hide the crime in the mud of Mississippi…But Mamie did the harder thing. She said, ‘No. You send my son home.’” The text then goes back to Mamie’s childhood outside of Chicago, where the family moved from Mississippi during the Great Migration. She excelled in school, graduating at the top of her class, and later married Louis Till. They had a baby, Emmett, whose bout with polio left him with a stutter. One summer, relatives invited Emmett to spend time with them in Mississippi. Mamie said no, fearful of the Jim Crow South. Although she finally agreed, still, “Sometimes a mother gets a feeling, an ache deep down in her soul — a warning.” The heart of the story is what happens following Emmett’s brutal murder. Mamie’s resolve not to let her son be forgotten leads her to a crusade of social justice and advocacy — not only for Emmett but for “sons and daughters still living.” Washington’s dramatic paper-cut art, featuring bold black-and-white silhouettes and figures on brown backgrounds with blue, brown, and red tissue-paper accents, perfectly captures the courage and dignity of the subject. Rich back matter includes author and illustrator notes, a playlist, a timeline, and a bibliography. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


As a picture-book biography, Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, written by Angela Joy and illustrated in papercraft by Janelle Washington, succeeds in presenting a difficult subject — the murder of Emmett Till — in a manner that children can understand. Written in evocative free verse, this visually stunning biography describes Mamie Till-Mobley’s life from her childhood during the Great Migration, throughout the tragedy of the death of her son, and finally as an activist and educator in Chicago (see the Horn Book review above for a description of the book's contents).

The power of this biography is found in how well Joy’s lyrical text and Washington’s expressionistic paper-cut illustrations work together to tell Mamie’s life story. Washington’s silhouettes, rendered mostly in black and white but often accented with other colors, are visual representations of Joy’s words and tone. In the illustrator’s note at the end, Washington discusses how she used negative and positive spaces with cut paper and layers of colored tissues to capture Mamie’s emotions, courage, and optimism for a better future.

The Caldecott criteria asks the committee to consider “excellence of execution in the artistic technique.” In her intricate paper-cut illustrations, Washington demonstrates that she is indeed a master of this medium. I am amazed that Choosing Brave is her debut picture book; her work is so accomplished. The criteria also includes a statement about “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.” Of particular merit is how the author and illustrator chronicle Mamie’s life and Emmett’s death. In the hands of lesser artists, Emmett’s murder and its aftermath could be portrayed in a graphic or sensational fashion inappropriate for a younger audience. That is not the case here. Joy and Washington respect not only Mamie’s life and legacy but also the children who will read and listen to this picture book.

My verdict? This biography is an absolute contender for the Caldecott, and other awards as well.

Scot Smith

Scot Smith is the librarian at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He served on the 2018 Printz Award Jury and has been reading for the Schneider Family Book Award for the past four years. He also teaches courses in Young Adult Literature and Comics and Graphic Novels for the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee. 

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Martha Parravano

Thanks so much for this thoughtful discussion, Scot. I just wanted to drop this here, from the artist's website, and to remind readers that this is indeed her debut picture book. "Janelle Washington is a self-taught paper-cut and silhouette [artist] from Richmond, Virginia... Through the simplicity of paper, Janelle creates images that showcase African Americans' courage, achievements, and grace in difficult situations. In addition, her work explores Black culture, history, identity, family, and feminine beauty themes."

Posted : Nov 07, 2022 06:48



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