Singing for Dr. King by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.
Produced for Scholastic by Color-Bridge Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2004.
Picture book non-fiction, 32 pages (including back matter).
Lexile: 660L (for some reason, the illustrator is listed as the author)
AR Level: 3.8 (worth 0.5 points)
NOTE: Part of the Just For You series, level 3. This book is non-fiction.
This book is about Sheyann Webb and her friend Rachel West, two third graders who marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These nine year olds also sang for Dr. King and attended civil rights meetings, defying and later inspiring their parents and teachers by doing so.
This book instantly stood out from the pile of books because anything about Dr. King is hugely popular in my house. Then when I opened the book and read the first page, I knew it was non-fiction partly by the way in which the characters were introduced. Here is the opening:
“In 1965, Sheyann Webb was in the third grade in Selma, Alabama. She was smaller than most third graders, including her best friend, Rachel West. // Rachel was nine. She lived with her family in the apartment next door to Sheyann’s.” p. 5
Fiction books for young children simply don’t open that way, giving the full names, ages, and year on the opening page. It happened that I had just been reading A Child Shall Lead Them, so I quickly recognized the names and scenarios from that book. However, a reader who was not already familiar with these events could easily have mistaken this book for fiction that was written oddly.
I don’t fault the author or illustrators for this error, this one is solely on the publishers. If you create a series in which the majority of the books are fiction and you then slip in a non-fiction book, it really needs to be labeled in some way. At the end of the book, the “Together Time: Read More” section says “Remind your child that this story is true.” but realistically, not every parent or teacher is going to read this section.
This problem could have easily been solved by the inclusion of one extra word in the back cover blurb. Instead of ending with “This is her story,” it could say “This is her true story.” Most people do read the blurb at some point.
This book is geared towards that awkward stage where students have mastered the basic sight words, can use phonics to sound out new words, and can apply reading strategies, but aren’t ready yet to fully switch to chapter books. It is not intended for read-aloud, although you certainly could read it aloud at home or with a very small group if you have kids that can sit through multiple paragraphs with the same picture. This could also be used with students who are ready for chapter books but just want a quicker read, or those who want to learn about Sheyann Webb.
Most page spreads have several paragraphs of text mixed in with the illustrations, but some have a page of text on the left and a full-page illustration on the right. The mix is perfect for readers who are slowly building their stamina for chapter books.
Based on the text complexity (not the subject matter), I would recommend this book for third and fourth graders, but it could certainly be read by younger children. The darker aspects of the march are not emphasized, and while there is an underlying sense that marching could be dangerous, it is only mentioned in the text once (her parents are worried that she could be hurt) and the illustrations once (marchers are faced with police and the police seem tense, some police are holding clubs). Do still preview for content, but in my opinion a high-reading kindergartner could read this book without harm (but might have questions).
The illustrations absolutely charmed me. Although they are watercolors, they are always full of a sense of motion which I’m not accustomed to seeing in watercolors. I normally dislike the way African-American hair is conveyed in this medium, but this team did a fair job of conveying a variety of hairstyles.
Page 22 and 23 were my favorite illustrations in the book. Two religious were included, who are often overlooked in children’s books about the marches. And this book really highlights the variety and ability of the illustrators – you can see white and black people with a variety of skin tones, clothes, and hairstyles. So, so often children’s books either make everyone in a crowd ridiculously dark or so light you can’t tell their ethnicity. The notes indicate that they often work from historical photos, but whether they were working from photos or their imaginations, I’m glad that a crowd was shown with a full range of diverse faces.
I think there are more books by this team in the series, but I will certainly be seeking out more of their work. Both at the library and at home, I had trouble holding on to this book long enough to write a review – kids were drawn to it and loved it.
This book is highly recommended for third up to even sixth grade and has content appropriate to use with younger students as well. Just remember that it’s non-fiction!