Review of How Do You Spell Unfair?: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee

MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling BeeHow Do You Spell Unfair?: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee
by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Frank Morrison
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
4/23    9781536215540    $18.99

As a young Black girl growing up in 1930s Akron, Ohio, MacNolia Cox had an affinity for words—long and complicated words in particular. Known to read the dictionary for fun, the scholar handily won her school’s spelling bee, a written test, and an oral competition, which put her in the running for the citywide contest. Competing there against fifty other children, MacNolia emerged victorious as the first African American to win—a feat that made her even more beloved and famous in her community and eligible to compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination tainted her experience. On the train, MacNolia and her mother were forced to move to a segregated car once they reached the state of Maryland; the official hotel was for whites only; and she and the other Black competitor were made to sit at a different table during the bee itself. However, showing the same acumen and resolve as in Akron, she continued to advance in the competition, making it to the top five. Cox is remembered for her perseverance under pressure, and both the affecting text (with its spelling-centered refrain: “Can you spell dedication?”; “Can you spell excited?”) and brilliantly hued oil- and spray-paint illustrations portray her with dignity while reflecting the intensity of the times. An epilogue reinforces how every victory encourages others; a bibliography is appended.

From the March/April 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Eboni Njoku
Eboni Njoku is a children’s librarian at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library Branch of the DC Public Library.

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