If you’ve had a child in elementary school in the past ten years, you’ve probably seen Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. My kids are all older than that, so I hadn’t seen it.

But it won Caldecott honors for its magnificent illustrations, and it was the winner of the Coretta Scott King award when it came out. And it tells the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. So by now it is a staple of classroom reading during Black History Month.

It would be a shame, though, if Rosa were read only by schoolchildren in February. The book isn’t just an elegant portrait of Rosa Parks. It also shows the actions of other people that made her action, her protest, as powerful as it was.

The Women’s Political Council, Emmett Till’s mother, Dr. Martin Luther King … all of these, and every black person in Montgomery, Alabama, who walked to work, and walked home, day after day, week after week, month after month. (You can get a feel for what the bus boycott was like by watching The Long Walk Home, a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.)

And the book makes it clear that Rosa Parks didn’t stay in her seat just because she’d had a long day at work:

“… she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of putting white people first. Tired of stepping off the sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools. She was tired of ‘Colored’ entrances, ‘Colored’ balconies, ‘Colored’ drinking fountains, and ‘Colored’ taxis. She was tired of getting somewhere first and being waited on last. Tired of ‘separate’ and definitely tired of ‘not equal.’”

Bryan Collier’s Illustrations

The powerful story is made even more powerful by Bryan Collier’s incredible illustrations. They’re cut paper collages, but I don’t want you to think they’re simple and blocky. In a note in the front of the book, Collier says he wanted to make the pictures feel like a hot Alabama day, and he did. The images are warm, almost sultry. You could almost hear someone singing “Summertime.” And in the illustrations, Rosa Parks herself is radiant.

It’s a beautiful book, and an important one. You really should read it.

Read More

Me and Uncle Romie: A Review: The story of Romare Bearden, an African American artist of the 20th century.

Baseball Saved Us: A Review: A boy’s experience in the Japanese internment camps in World War II.

Jamaica’s Find: A Review: When Jamaica finds a toy dog on the playground, she takes it home with her. Finders keepers. But is that the right thing to do?

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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