March. Book 1. by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. Top Shelf, 2013.
African-American Senator John Lewis tells the first part of the story of his life, including his childhood and his collegiate activities with the Civil Rights Movement up to the March on Washington, in this graphic memoir. It’s told with a frame story of the senator getting ready to give a speech at Obama’s first inauguration, but pausing on his way to tell his story to two young boys who come to his office to meet him. I read in an interview that Lewis decided on the graphic format for his memoir because one of the key pieces of instructional literature that was passed around during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement was a comic book on the methods of non-violent resistance.
Lewis was a key player in the Movement, taking part in department store sit-ins, training people in nonviolent resistance, and participating in bus boycotts. While of course I’ve read about the movement – it feels like mostly (deservedly) worshipful juvenile biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks – I don’t think I’d ever before read a first-person account of someone involved at the grassroots level. Maybe the difference is that the other biographies are focusing on how special the individual was? Here, the spotlight is on the belief and dedication of all the people involved, even as it’s told from the perspective of one person. It’s an inspiring story, and the pictures really brought the story to life. Nate Powell is an acclaimed graphic novel artist in his own right, and it shows. The ink and watercolor pictures combine feeling with historical accuracy, while still keeping characters recognizable.
This is a challenging topic for a graphic novel – while the Civil Rights Movement is rightfully taught in schools, the first-person perspective and the graphic format could easily have made for a book with too much violence to be appropriate for kids. However, it’s very thoughtfully put together – while the text is clear that nonviolent protestors were treated violently, the violence is described briefly and matter-of-factly in the text but not shown in the pictures. While you’d probably still not want to hand it to a first-grader, I’d say this is appropriate for children old enough to really learn about what this period of history involved, about 10 and up, depending on the child. It has been nominated for the Cybils in the Elementary/Middle Grade Graphics category.
The book has a cover blurb from Bill Clinton, and was getting publicity lots of big places. We have copies here at my library in both adult and teen, figuring there’d be a lot of demand for it. So far, unfortunately, there hasn’t been, but I’m hoping that it will build momentum as time goes on. This is a deeply moving and important piece of American history.