“Voices from the March on Washington” and social justice poetry in the classroom

Voices from the March on Washington

After reading “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis last month, I knew I’d need to read it again. Now I wish I had a classroom full of kids to read it with.


Because when I looked for more information on the book, I found this blog post on Sylvia Vardell’s “Poetry for Children” blog. The post consists of excerpts from a magazine article that Vardell, an author and professor, wrote for teachers and librarians aiming to integrate social justice and poetry lessons. She addresses the topic broadly and then does deeper dive on “Voices from the March on Washington.” The 2014 book is a novel-in-verse featuring the voices of six recurring fictional characters, as well as other nonrecurring characters and historical figures.

Vardell’s post is full of fabulous discussion questions and activity ideas for teachers, and many could be adapted by parents. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Invite students to find news articles that address a social justice issue and encourage them to create ‘black out’ poems by drawing through all unwanted words in their news articles with a thick, black marker, so that the remaining words create a ‘justice’ poem.”
  • Perform “Voices from the March on Washington” in readers theater style with individuals students taking on a character. “Hearing actual voices reading can assist in discussing the title of the book and the concept of ‘voice’ in poetry,” writes Vardell. “Whose point of view is represented? Why is it important to be heard? How are the concepts of justice and voice linked?”

Heck, maybe I don’t even need a classroom of kids for those activities. I’d be happy to do them with a group of friends. But Vardell’s ideas are great for getting children thinking and talking about social justice issues past and present through
a creative medium. Her post also includes some interview questions with Lyons and Lewis (the authors of “Voices”) and a plethora of related book titles. Go check it out.

Help Jennyann Carthern paint African-American youth

Jennyann Carthern

Jennyann Carthern is an artist with a mission. She recently launched a project, “Painting Black Faces,” in which she aims to paint 50 faces of African-American children in grades K-5. Her goal is both personal — to improve her artistic skills — and political — to celebrate the variety of skin colors in our world and help children “love the skin they’re in.”

Jennyann plans to compile the portraits into a children’s book. In her video about the project, she shares that as a young artist, impressionist painters were her heroes, but later on she wanted to see more people like herself in artwork.

“Right now in children’s picture books, there’s not a lot of diversity, but that is changing, and I wanted to be a part of that change,” she says.

So, how can you help? If you are the parent of an African-American or multiracial child, Jennyann is asking you to send her a high-quality photo of your child, along with some information about their personality. Those who participate will get an 8×10″ print of the painting she creates. Read more details and instructions at her website.

Reading Sad, Dark Books to Children

Jill Eisenberg, a literacy expert, wrote a post on the Lee & Low blog this week, called “Why I Love to Read Sad and Dark Books to Children (And You Should Too).”

Some people believe children should be protected in a bubble from the harsher parts of life. But the reality is that many, many children, both here in the U.S. and around the world, experience trauma and tragedy.  Those who don’t will nonetheless encounter challenges sometime in their lives.

Eisenberg acknowledges the popularity and value of light and humorous stories for kids but makes the case for not excluding heavier subjects from what we read to children:

Using books with dark themes or settings in the classroom can give students the language to express their emotions, models for how to discuss and engage on these topics with adults and peers, and a safe space to explore difficult topics. When students read about characters struggling with abuse, bullying, or poverty, they also see how the characters found strength and resources to cope and thrive.

Check out her full post here. She also shares questions to ask when selecting sad or dark books, as well as recommended titles.* I’ve only read one of her suggestions, so I’ll be checking some of the others out soon.


*Given where the article was posted, Eisenberg’s recommendations are all from Lee & Low, a publishing company that focuses on diverse children’s books.

Add these to your to-read pile! Newbery winner and more

In case you didn’t hear, the American Library Association announced its 2015 youth media awards on Monday. That includes the Caldecott Medal (for picture books), the Newbery Medal (for middle grade), various Coretta Scott King awards (recognizing African American authors and illustrators) and the Printz Award (for young adult books.)

While I’ve read several books that were honorees — like “Brown Girl Dreaming” and “El Deafo” — I haven’t read the top winners of either the Caldecott or the Newbery.

The Crossover

“The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” written and illustrated by Dan Santat won the Caldecott. It’s the story of an imaginary friend seeking the perfect child to pair with. “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander won the Newbery. It’s a novel in verse about twin brothers dealing with growing up, family ties and basketball.

Count them among my to-read pile, along with a bunch of the others on the ALA list.

Also count this children’s book on my to-read pile when it debuts next month: “Rad American Women A-Z.” It’s an alphabet book featuring biographies of women from Angela Davis to Zora Neale Hurston. According to Bitch Magazine, the selected women are “diverse in terms of race, era, and in their field of work, ranging from scientists to writers and activists.” I can’t wait to check it out!

Rad American Women A-ZA book that came out this week that I hope to pick up soon is “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia” by Miranda Paul, who is in one of the online writers community I participate in. It’s the true story of five women tackling the plastic trash problem in their village.


What rad children’s books have you added to your to-read list lately?

Got graphic novels?

Illustrator Mary Rockcastle recently posted a list of “9 Graphic Novels Every Girl Should Read” that look wonderful. Hat tip to Emily C. for sharing the link with me!

Although the headline refers to “girls,” I don’t think Rockcastle’s suggestions are geared to children. Some would no doubt be good for teenagers, though. I’ve only read two on the list, so getting to the rest is now among my 2015 reading goals.

For younger kids, my top graphic novel recommendation is Cece Bell’s “El Deafo.” Published by Abrams last year, it depicts a deaf girl navigating friendships and crushes while wearing a “phonic ear” device that allows her to hear her teacher anywhere in the school. (Yes, that includes when the teacher’s in the bathroom!) It’s actually a memoir about Bell’s own childhood, though she’s portrayed as a rabbit.

Here’s a video of Bell talking about “El Deafo”:

Got any suggestions for graphic novels focused on social justice events, characters or themes? If so, please share them in the comments!

(And if you feel iffy about the merits of reading graphic novels, go read this feature story I recently wrote on the subject: “Want your kid to read more? Give them graphic novels.”)