Voting as a Battleground: Children’s Literature that Reminds Us Why We Vote

Today is election day in the United States. It has been an ugly election year and people of color (not to mention women) have been put in the spotlight at several moments in the campaign. From discussions about walls and judges who might be biased, to labeling whole groups of people as living in poverty and crime, to threats to remove all people from a particular religious group from the country, watching the news during the last few months has often felt like viewing a battleground.

So far, however, most of the American people have ensured that the verbal sparring has not spilled over into actual physical violence. This was not always the case in the US, and today I’ll focus on one of the many books available that remind us of those times. Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Schwartz and Wade 2010) is particularly pertinent for today’s election for a number of reasons.

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Just an ordinary friend of the family–Shelton’s description and Colon’s illustration of “Uncle Martin”.

Paula Young Shelton is the daughter of Andrew Young, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. The book is her story, her childhood spent in the midst of Civil Rights leaders such as her father, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most surprising and tender moments of the book is when Shelton describes learning to swim with Martin Luther King, Jr, at the local YMCA, because it is a good reminder that MLK and other Civil Rights Leaders were also ordinary people, albeit living through extraordinary times.

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The sit-in strike–as old as childhood itself.

The ordinariness of people is one of Shelton’s messages in the book, but so too is the idea that ordinary people can choose to do the harder thing, and thus become extraordinary. At the beginning of the book, Shelton’s family is living in the northern part of the country “where there was no Jim Crow” (n.p.). But during the Freedom Rider protests, Shelton’s family sees how “racists pulled the students from their seats and set the buses on fire” (n.p.) and rather than simply shake their heads and say what a shame it is, both of Shelton’s parents, in separate declarations, announce that they need to move to the South to stand up for the rights of all people to do ordinary things. Shelton describes her first “sit-in” strike at a restaurant in Atlanta. When her family was refused a table, Shelton was so hungry that she sat down and essentially had a temper tantrum. Her parents did not make her stop. Any parent who has ever had a child break down in a restaurant or store knows that even that takes courage.

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Doing the hard thing is easier when you are together.

The culmination of the story is the Selma to Montgomery march, and this too is a triumph of the ordinary. Shelton lists all the various groups who came, and includes in it “a man with one leg who everybody called Sunshine” (n.p.). This is the only individual she mentions besides Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, and again it highlights the way that ordinary people making hard choices can make a difference. This march led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “would make sure all people—black and white—could vote and no one could stop them” (n.p.).

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Civil Rights are for all people–and you can make a difference, no matter who you are.

Raul Colón’s illustrations underpin the book’s message. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. is first mentioned in the story as “Uncle Martin” who teaches little Paula Young to swim. Colón’s first illustration of King is, not as a statesman or even a leader of marches, but of him in his swimming trunks. Colón depicts him filling up the page—larger than life, as we have come to think of him—arms wide open and smiling, but as a person, rather than a Civil Rights leader. This everyday action, of King teaching Shelton how to swim, makes Paula feel a part of a family, “the family of the civil rights movement” (n.p.). Her family—birth and “adopted”—gives her strength to become a protestor herself, to protect the rights of people who don’t have a family like hers to stand behind them. The book ends with this connection to family and to protest: “And one day, when Mama and Daddy were too tired to march, too weary to carry us on their shoulders, too exhausted to fight another battle, the baton would pass to us and we would march on—children of the civil rights movement” (n.p.).

And although Shelton mentions “other battles” that would have to be fought, Colón’s illustrations remind the reader subtly that civil rights affect everyone in all times, not just African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover illustration, which is not drawn from any of the pages of the book but is a separate and unique illustration, with no text other than the book title and authors to accompany it, is of the little girl Paula holding a flag. The flag says EQUALITY, and is rainbow-colored. The book appeared in 2010, during the fight in the US over another kind of civil right—that of same-sex couples to marry. Civil rights, Colón appears to suggest, are more than just a historical issue. And voting is the citizen’s way to protect those civil rights for all people (even the non-citizens) who live in a country. In that way, we are all children of the Civil Rights movement.

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