Lynn: What does it take to end oppression and injustice? Many of us would suggest the inspiration of an exceptional leader, but I believe in the bravery and determination of ordinary people. Alice Fay Duncan’s moving picture book, Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 (2018), is a prime example.

Duncan bases her book on the memories of a Memphis teacher Dr. Almella Starks-Umoja, who marched in the strike with her parents. Cindy and I were so fortunate to meet Duncan and the book’s illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, at ALA in New Orleans to hear the story of this outstanding book.

In a moving first-person voice, a young girl named Lorraine relates the events of the months-long sanitation workers’ strike that began with the tragic deaths of two workers. Poorly paid, enduring horrible conditions including badly maintained, dangerous equipment and racial oppression, the sanitation workers formed a labor union to advocate for better treatment, but the mayor of Memphis ignored them and refused their requests. After two workers were killed in a truck malfunction, 1300 workers walked off the job and began to march.

Many others rallied to the cause, including Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders. But this story focuses on the experiences of the workers and their families and the sacrifices they made as seen through the eyes of a young girl. “My daddy marched in that number,” she explains. “He marched for better pay. He marched for decent treatment. My daddy marched for me.”

Duncan does an outstanding job of giving us a child’s version of this pivotal event, including her occasional confusion, her yearning for new shoes when money was scarce, and the poem she writes upon Martin Luther King’s death in Memphis. The story goes on to relate the settlement of the strike and what it meant to the girl’s family. Readers will not forget this searing history lesson as they walk with Lorraine and the everyday people who stood up for their rights.

Cindy: If you need an author for a school visit, I’d highly recommend Duncan. Over the course of more than a decade, her book evolved from collection of poems with backmatter to a nonfiction picture book with just two poems. In addition to the fascinating story of her book, Duncan’s experiences as a school librarian and her enthusiasm make her an engaging speaker. At an ALA event, she used the final poem in the book as a call and response. I just found that poem available as a free printable poster on her website. It is perfect for the Growth Mindset classroom.

Gregory Christie’s stunning gouache paintings come in a varied palette that suit the subject on each page. I particularly liked Andrew Medlar’s assessment from his Booklist review: “Most gratifyingly, the determination of the characters and the import of this part of history are imbued with dignity throughout.” Examining the illustrations again and again, I was reminded that picture books really are the first—and sometimes only—art galleries that children experience.

Before Christie won a Caldecott Honor for his art for Freedom in Congo Square (2016), I wrote he inspired me to want to visit Congo Square on a Sunday afternoon. Little did I know that I’d get to do so with Gregory as a guide! When talking with him at ALA, I mentioned that Lynn and I were planning to visit the square in Louis Armstrong Park the next day. Gregory invited us to join him. Some of his Caldecott committee members were there too, and we all enjoyed listening to the gathered drummers. Watching a very young African American boy beat on an older white boy’s drum, white and black hands in rhythm together, faces smiling, was a sure sign of hope for our future. It was moving to stand on such hallowed ground and to be a part of the long tradition. Please enjoy the pictures I took of the occasion.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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