I mentioned recently that School Library Journal has honored illustrator Steffi Walthall and me by including Moving Forward: From Space-Age Rides to Civil Rights Sit-Ins with Airman Alton Yates (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, 2022) on its list of the best books of the year.
(SLJ‘s starred review last spring read, in part, “To open any discussion of civil rights, this is a great title to have on hand. … No matter how many books are already in the collection, this is a solid and groundbreaking addition.”)
Gratifying as it is, though, inclusion on that list is not the most meaningful turn in the journey of Moving Forward. No, that honor goes to the remarkable events of a couple of weeks ago, when I got to celebrate the book in person with its subject, Alton Yates.
I had last seen Alton — and Gwen, his wife of 62 years — in July 2017 when my wife and I visited them at their home in Jacksonville, Florida. The first of our reunions there occurred at a private school with an audience of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders whose teachers had read Moving Forward to them so that the students could come prepared with questions for Alton and me.
What an experience for those students! But also, what an experience for me.
Out of the several hundred student audiences I’ve addressed in my career as an author, I’d never had a school visit that was anything like this — one where I had the honor and privilege of sharing the stage with someone I’d written about, let alone someone I so deeply admire.
It was just the first of several public conversations for Alton and me. From that school, he and I headed directly to the studios of First Coast News, which is shared by the local affiliates of ABC and NBC. Watch our interview here, and I bet you’ll quickly share in my admiration of Alton.
We also appeared together a few mornings later in a live interview with TV station WJXT, and you can see that conversation here.
(In between, at the exact time I was talking about Moving Forward at the annual conference of the Florida Association for Media in Education, Alton appeared solo on Jacksonville’s NPR station and sounded like he was born to do just that. Listen for yourself starting at the 33:30 mark.)
Those media appearances were building up to the week’s long-in-the-works main event: the Jacksonville Public Library’s hosting of Alton and me for a Saturday afternoon Lit Chat in the room at the Main Library where I had sat in 2017 while researching the book.
TiLena Robinson, a social studies specialist with Duval County Public Schools and a member of the district’s African American History Task Force, did a phenomenal job guiding our conversation, which will eventually be available for viewing online.
One of her questions was whether — given Florida’s politics and recent legislation — 2022 is an especially good time or an especially bad time for Moving Forward to come out into the world.
I answered that it depends on everyday people such as that crowd at the library (and, I could have added, on folks in Texas and other states where book-ban fever has taken hold).
If we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to suppress honest, age-appropriate examinations of our history — if we cave in to them the way the ax-handle-wielding mob at the climax of Moving Forward surely expected the members of Jacksonville’s NAACP Youth Council to surrender back in 1960 — then yes, this is an unfortunate time for such a book to be awaiting its audience.
But if Moving Forward inspires readers and educators to follow the brave, courageous examples set by Alton Yates and his fellow sit-in demonstrators — demonstrators as young as 13 — more than six decades ago, then I’d say there is no better time for this book. And I’d say that Alton’s contagiously unwavering faith in the people of the United States is more than justified.