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How children’s books carry on the struggle for civil rights

Philippe Lardy's illustration for "A Wreath for Emmett Till" by Marilyn Nelson.Philippe Lardy

AMHERST — On the left is a simple drawing of young Rosa McCauley, her black hair tied in bows, posed with her parents and baby brother at home in Tuskegee, Ala. On the right are pale riders in white hoods on dark horses, thundering hatred through the inky night. The question is not how these images can coexist, but why. They’re pages from the renowned artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s 1999 children’s book “If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks.” (McCauley was Parks’s maiden name.) And they’re as powerful an emblem as any of the divide that still cleaves the heart of American society.

But in a children’s book? Don’t be surprised. This is stern stuff, true, but it’s in good company. Ringgold’s pages, along with more than 80 other works by 41 artists, are part of “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. It’s a rich, expansive genre, spanning decades, and with softness of purpose only occasionally present. Among the dozens of illustrators here, aesthetics range from sharp-focus realism to stylized fantasy. But there’s unity in the blunt portrayal of the civil rights era’s stomach-turning racial terrors: James Ransome’s crisp, chilling image of Black diners and their white allies doused with cream, sugar, and mustard by vicious crowds at a segregated lunch counter, or Ekua Holmes’s shadowy collage of civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer shielding her head with her arms as police clubs rain down.


Images from Faith Ringgold's "If A Bus Could Talk," 1999. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Children’s books are often about lessons couched in story, with pictures as the spoonful of sugar to sweeten the didactic medicine. Not here. Curated by children’s book author Andrea Davis Pinkney, “Picture the Dream” is often stark, even harrowing. It merits full respect for that. I have two kids, ages 10 and 12. If I’ve learned anything — with children, an unending process — it’s that sheltering them too much from the world’s ugly realities only defers confrontation.


And if that confrontation never happens? Worse: They’ll be stuck inside the buffer of the status quo, where nothing ever changes. That suits plenty of people just fine — just look at the 2020 election, where 74 million people were happy to vote for regressive retrenchment — but it’s no way forward. And this is a country that needs as much forward as it can get. (Interspersed throughout the show were Nate Powell’s illustrations for the graphic novel trilogy “March,” about the grand arc of the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of John Lewis. I was so struck that I bought all three volumes on my way out the door.)

Bryan Collier's illustration for "All Because You Matter" by Tami Charles.Bryan Collier/Courtesy Scholastic Inc.

Moving forward is fundamentally about looking back, which is what “Picture the Dream” is about. It’s broken into three chapters: “A Backward Path,” with illustrations from books about Jim Crow and segregation laws. (One illustration, by Shadra Strickland, is like a dystopian version of Norman Rockwell. It pictures two small boys tip-toeing up to their respective side-by-side drinking fountains; it would be a little too cute, but for the “white” and “colored” signs hanging above.) Chapter two — the longest, and with good reason — is called “The Rocks Are the Road,” and it’s about the intensity of activism and protest through the 1960s. (Here you’ll find those pieces by Ransome and Holmes, as well as an unnervingly minimal image by Benny Andrews of the 1965 standoff on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.)


And Chapter three is “Today’s Journey, Tomorrow’s Promise,” which ties past struggles to the present, in all its tumult and possibility. A favorite for me here is Brittany Jackson’s 2019 illustration of two little girls pointing in awe at Amy Sherald’s official portrait of a radiant Michelle Obama as first lady. The Black Lives Matter genre is off and running; Bryan Collier’s paintings for “All Because You Matter,” from 2020, are represented by a boy agog over a photograph of the masses of protesters from just a year ago.

Vanessa Brantley Newton's illustration for "The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist."Vanessa Brantley Newton/Courtesy Simon & Schuster, Inc.

“Picture the Dream” is equal parts history lesson and sermon, and in the best way. Heroes are always present, from Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. to Parks, Hendricks, and Ruby Bridges, who was 6 years old when she walked to school escorted by US marshals in 1960, the very first to break the color barrier of segregated schools in the south. The show teaches in vivid pictorial form the now far-too-long-running lesson of meeting hatred and violence with nonviolence and grace.

It also makes clear that no one is exempt from the cruelty and brutality that so often accompanies the struggle for justice. It reminds us, sometimes painfully, that discrimination respects no age. Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi at age 14 by white supremacists, appears twice, in works by Philippe Lardy and Tim Ladwig. Other examples include Vanessa Brantley Newton’s heartbreaking picture of Audrey Faye Hendricks, jailed in the early ’60s at just 9 years old for marching against Alabama’s segregated schools; or more chillingly, Charlotta Janssen’s collage of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by the KKK that killed four little girls.


You may not leave “Picture the Dream” feeling hopeful. That’s all right. Better, maybe, that you feel moved in a different way. Generations galvanize early. Teach your children well, and maybe the next chapter will be different. “Picture the Dream” can help.


At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst. Through July 3. Advance tickets recommended. 413-559-6300, www.carlemuseum.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.