Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.
Square Fish Imprint, Macmillan, New York, 2009.
Age 10 + nonfiction, 150 pages including extras, notes, and index.
Winner of the National Book Award and a Newberry Honor Book.
Various other awards and best of lists.
AR Level: 6.8 (worth 5.0 points)
Before Rosa Parks was a household name, there was Claudette Colvin. The first black woman (really a girl) to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and be arrested for doing so, she knew and inspired Rosa Parks, but was not considered suitable to be the face of the movement. Her story is now coming to light for a new generation.
This is “The acclaimed true story of the girl who changed history” according to the front cover. What it is inside was a little different than I’d expected. Most books by white men about black history tend to assume an authoritative, know-it-all position that often leaves out details important to the people who were living that history.
Significant portions of this book are told in the first person, taken directly from extensive interviews with Ms. Colvin herself. Yet he is credited as the sole author. I’m torn. Hoose clearly made the best choice by letting Colvin’s voice shine and allowing her to narrate as much as possible of her book. On the other hand, he is receiving all the credit.
There has been some debate about the suitability of a white man to tell this story. By his own account, Hoose pursued this story for many years. Colvin shuns the spotlight and was difficult to find and interview, agreeing to tell her story only after retirement to avoid potential reprisals at work.
An afterword to the new edition is in question and answer format between the authors, and on page 123 Colvin answers the question directly, stating that no black author ever approached her. She didn’t want to pay for her story to be told and “The truth is the truth regardless of the color of the author.” While I wish that Colvin was credited as an author, I also respect her choice to tell this story to Hoose.
The chapters are short and dotted with photographs both personal and historical and text boxes giving further information or a different perspective on various aspects of the story. This kept the pace moving briskly along, and will help keep things interesting for younger (or low-level) readers.
This was such an eminently quotable book that I had trouble choosing an excerpt. Every chapter had some simple but quotable line.
Only a few chapters in, we learn about Jeremiah Reeves, a teen arrested for supposedly raping a white woman. He voluntarily went to the police and gave a coerced confession. He had been incredibly popular, and his arrest and trial led to protests among the Booker T. Washington High student body. Claudette knew him before and was active in his defense, foreshadowing her later actions.
This book is rated by some as appropriate for third and fourth graders, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching this in the classroom. I try not to enter situations which would require me to explain rape to other people’s young children. While possibly appropriate for individual children, I’d put this firmly in the middle to high school range for libraries and curriculum usage. I’d love to see a picture book for younger children that glosses over the more explicit points.
Claudette Colvin is often a mere footnote in the history books, and this book brings many details of her story to light. I was especially impressed by her courage in agreeing to be the only minor in a lawsuit against the bus company. Her entire family had to agree she could testify in the courts at great personal danger and during a challenging time, yet they did so without hesitation.
“As I listened, I was of two minds. In one mind I was afraid. The way life was in the South, how could you not be afraid? […] But I was not a person who lived in fear.” pages 83 – 84.
Colvin’s relationship with Rosa Parks, who mentored her and was likely inspired by her, is also explored. This book gave a new and intriguing dimension to her story.
This book extends children’s knowledge of black history beyond a few well-known figures. Everyone should know Claudette Colvin’s name and the courageous actions she took, but this work will be especially powerful to young black teens.