I’ve been asking librarians and educators for insight into how they teach The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, and especially how they provide contextual information on the Reconstruction era. One suggestion involves a resource many schools and classrooms already have access to: the duo of Tim and Moby at BrainPOP.
The Reconstruction Era, a period spanning the early Civil War years until the start of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s, was a time of significant transformation in the United States, as the Nation grappled with the challenge of integrating millions of newly freed African Americans into its social, political, and economic life. It was in many ways the Nation’s Second Founding, as Americans abolished slavery and struggled earnestly, if not always successfully, to build a nation of free and equal citizens. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and gave all males the ability to vote by prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement a century later.
There’s already an educator’s guide that was made before the April 2015 publication date. Lots has happened since.
If you or someone else at your elementary, middle, or high school has taught and discussed the book with students, what has worked well? What other materials (books, videos, current news) were incorporated? What questions did students have? What would have been helpful?
A summary of the book, for those not familiar with it:
“From enslaved teenager to U.S. congressman in ten years…
“John Roy Lynch spent most of his childhood as a slave, but the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War promised African Americans in the South the freedom to work and learn as they saw fit. While many people there were unhappy with the changes, John Roy thrived in the new era. He was appointed to serve as Justice of the Peace and at age 25 was elected into the United States Congress, where he worked to ensure that the people he represented were truly free.
“This biography, accompanied by Don Tate’s splendid illustrations, gives readers an in-depth look at the Reconstruction period through the life of one of the first African American congressmen.”
Librarians and teachers, please share with me what you’ve got, and I’ll figure out a way to share that with those who could use it.
Thanks, y’all. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is a story about an era in which great progress was made and then undone. I think it’s very relevant. I want kids to know it.
“[W]hen every man, woman, and child can feel and know that his, her, and their rights are fully protected by the strong arm of a generous and grateful Republic, then we can all truthfully say that this beautiful land of ours, over which the Star Spangled Banner so triumphantly waves, is, in truth and in fact, the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.'”
I loved talking with Nick about ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and about being married to my favorite author in the whole world, as well as answering his curveballier questions. Such as:
What was my life like right before the moment I got inspired to write children’s books?
And if neither time nor money was a limitation, what would my ultimate project be?
I had to really think about those, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity. Thank you, Nick!
But I especially appreciate Horning’s recognition of the honesty and authenticity that Don Tate and I — and our publisher, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers — strove for with this book:
I can’t recall when I’ve seen a book for children that is so deliberate about calling out racism for what it is. And he does it with such clear, simple language, making this complex period in history accessible to young readers, just as Don Tate’s clear stylized illustrations do. Even though the illustrations use a cartoon style, there are no happy, smiling slaves here. What we see instead is the pain and suffering they endured and later, the look of pride and determination on the face of John Roy Lynch, a free man.
This means that readers in grades 3-6 at schools and libraries all over the state of Texas will be considering my collaboration with Don Tate along with 19 other titles as they prepare to pick their favorite in January 2017.
A lot of work goes into creating state lists such as the Bluebonnet and into coordinating the voting by students. The librarians responsible for this and similar programs provide a vital service in connecting young readers with a host of great books that they might not otherwise encounter. I’m always thankful for the work that these folks do — but, admittedly, this year I appreciate it even more than usual!
Our publisher, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, asked me to share my thoughts about this particular book getting this particular honor. I hope you’ll read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:
I’m especially happy to know that because of the inclusion of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List, elementary school students throughout this state will receive a basic, honest introduction to Reconstruction. Texas children have not been consistently well-served by their textbooks — witness the recent title that referred to slavery as “immigration” and to enslaved human beings as “workers” — and there is a role for books such as ours in furthering their education.
There has long been a big hole in our country’s collective understanding of why a March on Washington was necessary 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and why a Voting Rights Act was necessary a century after the end of the Civil War. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch helps fill that hole with a true account of the progress in civil rights and social justice that occurred during Reconstruction, as well as the violence and terrorism and indifference than turned back that progress.
As I write, I also discover more holes in what I know. My progress so far, however, gives me confidence that I’ll be able to fill those gaps, too. Students can fill those gaps as well. What I do, they can do — or learn to do. And I believe they can love it just as much.
The story that illustrator Don Tate and I tell in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch — published 150 years after the beginning of Reconstruction — has a lot in common with the one Shane and Jonah tell a half century after that essential piece of legislation. If Reconstruction’s potential for civil rights and social justice had been seen through, there would have been no need for the long, unfair, but ultimately uplifting struggle depicted in Lillian’s Right to Vote.
I also believe that understanding Reconstruction, understanding the fight for the right to vote, and understanding the resistance to each are essential for understanding America today. Jonah Winter has a lot to say on this topic, too. One of the subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter (you can sign up here) will win a copy of Lillian’s Right to Vote. But in the meantime, here’s my chat with him.
Me: What drew you toward the story you tell in Lillian’s Right to Vote?
Jonah: I get the sense, from reading and listening to the news, that a lot of white Americans seem to be perpetually annoyed by African Americans (and “liberals”) who talk about racism, and the history of slavery and racism in this country. They seem to think that all of that bad stuff “happened in the past,” and that people should just “get over it,” “move on,” “stop complaining.”
People who advocate this point of view clearly just don’t “get” (much less want to “get”) what it must be like to be African American, to be a “black person” (meaning, a person with any visible African heritage…) every single minute of every single day, affected on a daily basis by racism (that makes them always potential victims of white police brutality, for instance), and carrying inside them an ever-present history of institutionalized (and less formal) racism in America — and not just inside them. It’s right there, on the surface, the skin, ever-present, an impediment to equal and respectful treatment.
For conservative white people, “history,” meaning American history here, is a thing to be proud of: our “Founding Fathers,” the “price they paid” for our “liberty,” our “freedom.” I remember a country song from the ’70s called “The Fightin’ Side of Me” that had the lines, “If you don’t love it, leave it/Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’.” There’s an inherent lack of empathy in that approach, to put it mildly!
[Readers, this is Chris, interjecting for a moment just to say that, much as I love Merle Haggard, and as much as I’m aware that his song “Okie from Muskogee” from the same period was at least partially intended as satire, the catchy jingoism in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” makes me uncomfortable. I believe that Jonah has put his finger on what most unnerves me about it. But I also think that the song gives a misleading sense of Haggard’s view of the world. Consider “Irma Jackson,” a third song of his from that era:
“There’s a mighty wall between us, standing high,” Haggard could clearly see. Anyway, back to Jonah.]
All that talk about “freedom” — how do they think that sounds to the ears of an African American? Freedom?! Have any of them stopped for even one moment to consider what our “proud” “history” must mean to someone whose ancestors were slaves, whose ancestors were oppressed in the Jim Crow south?
History is no abstraction. The hypocrisy of the slave-owning Founding Fathers, the despicable evil of slavery and Jim Crow — it’s with us every single minute of every single day. And for those who are African American, this is no choice. For the rest of us, it’s an issue of empathy. Certainly, for me as a writer, it’s an issue of empathy: Wanting myself to walk a mile in Lillian’s shoes — and wanting my readers to.
What turns me on as a writer is a structure that somehow embodies the story I want to tell. And honestly, the structure for this story “just came to me.” I had read a news item about a 100-year-old African American woman in Pittsburgh (whose first name was Lillian) who walked up a very steep hill to vote on Election Day in 2008.
She had grown up in the Jim Crow south. She knew what it was to be denied the right to vote. And on November 4th, 2008, after walking up a very steep hill, she voted for Barack Obama. All of a sudden I could picture a 32-page picture book about a 100-year-old African American woman walking up a hill to vote, seeing history on a split screen with the present moment — a story about someone for whom history informs and inspires every footstep.
It seemed like the perfect metaphor — and structure — for the idea I wanted to get across. And the ever-present history that she sees every moment is not entirely shameful — towards the end, there is the history of the people who courageously fought and died for civil rights and voting rights. It was the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which also prompted this story.
While I was writing it, though, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, rendering it basically meaningless, in terms of enforcing any of the laws against voter discrimination that states like Alabama and Texas are now so conveniently side-stepping.
Am I angry? Yes, I am angry. Anger, too, was a motivation for this story.
Me: What kind of kid do you see Lillian’s Right to Vote appealing to the most?
Jonah: Appealing to? I don’t know about that.
I did in fact intend for this book to be read by all American children. I’m happy it came out in July (in anticipation of the August anniversary of the Voting Rights Act) rather than during African American History Month. I think that the topic and history of racism in America is something that all Americans share — regardless of skin color or cultural background. We’re all in this together.
Whether your ancestors were slaves or slaveowners (or both), whether your family has lots of money or no money, if you live in America, then the history of slavery, racism, and voting rights is YOUR history. Many picture books, even biographies, feature a child’s experience, because many editors (and authors, apparently) feel that this will make the book more “child-friendly.” My book features a 100-year-old woman.
What I’m asking my young readers to do is to empathize with someone whose experience is nothing like their own. Most children have grandparents; some even have great-grandparents — and hopefully this story will cause them to see those older people in a different light. Someone who’s lived that many years by default carries a whole lot of at least personal history around inside them — but public history, too.
My hope is that this book will engage children enough to make them start looking at the world differently, seeing how history is always with us, seeing older people as receptacles of history, and, in the case of white readers, empathizing with Americans who were not born with the privileges inherent in white skin, and for all readers, feeling pride in those Americans who should make us proud to be American by fighting for and actually achieving justice in the 1960s.
When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, I cared a whole lot about politics — and about justice and injustice. I suppose this book will probably appeal most to kids who care about things like that. But I hope that the stark historical facts I present throughout the book will grab the attention of all my readers, rile them up, make them start thinking, make them start questioning, and make them see that history is a living, breathing thing that we are creating every minute of every day.