JUDGE – VARIAN JOHNSON
by Louise Erdrich
|March, Book III
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
and Nate Powell
On the surface, this looks to be a match-up between David and Goliath. Spartans vs. Xerxes. The Rock against Kevin Hart. On one side we have Makoons, a short, quiet historical novel about an Ojibwe family in nineteenth-century America. The novel, the fifth book in Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House Series, received glowing reviews yet flew under the radar for most of 2016. On the opposite side is March, Book Three. Written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, this graphic novel was the bell of the ball during this past awards season. Accolades include a National Book Award, the Michael L. Printz Award, a Coretta Scott King Author Award, Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, and the YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction.
Makoons begins in the summer of 1866 as a boy named Makoons, his twin brother, Chickadee, and their family have left the reservation—the leftover land that the United States government tried to give then—and instead make their home in the Great Plains of Dakota. The author, herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, pushes against stereotypes typically seen in stories of First Nations. We see these characters as fully-formed people. Makoons and Chickadee want to hunt buffalo, like their father and the other members of their family. They understand the need for the hunt, and its seriousness to the continued well-being of their family. But Erdrich also shows us that the boys are still just kids. Makoons and Chickadee are tricksters, they love playing games with each other, and they even try to get out of their chores every once in a while. The novel begins a little too slowly for my liking, but I believe this was necessary so the author could clearly convey life in the late eighteen hundreds as well as life as an Ojibwe.
March, Book Three begins with immediate action—the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Upon reading the captions Sept 15, 1963 and Birmingham, Alabama, I knew what was about to take place on the page. Cringing, I pushed forward. A later panel shows four beautiful black girls, standing together in the church bathroom, talking about school. And then there is a BOOM, and panels of smoke, and the image of a girl’s shoe, once white, now charred. John Lewis appears a few panels later, as he makes his way to the funeral.
I am very familiar with the life of John Lewis, having read his excellent autobiography Walking With the Wind, and I was pleased to see that the graphic novel maintained the same level of truth and realism. We see Lewis’s struggles within his own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as philosophical difference with older civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The book also explores the Civil Rights Movement’s fraught relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson, who could be both ally and adversary, as well as showcasing important parts of the movement that are often overlooked, such as the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to allow a legal means to challenge the segregation-based Democratic party.
And then, of course, there was the Selma voter registration initiative, which included the brutality of Bloody Sunday. The art pulls no punches here, showing the bloodied bodies of John Lewis and other marchers as they are attacked with billy clubs and tear gas by Alabama state troopers. I especially like that the book doesn’t just end with the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965—it also intersperses images from another important day in American History: January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
Both volumes are important works of art. Both books are American stories—stories of hardship and perseverance. Stories of strength and sacrifice. But this is a battle, and every battle has to have a winner. My pick is March, Book Three. John Lewis is a national treasure. He saw something wrong with the world and decided to take a stand. In times like this, his story is a lesson that we all need to learn.
— Varian Johnson
David and Goliath, indeed, not only with the books, but with the struggles Erdrich’s and Lewis’ characters face. It’s astounding to remember John Lewis’ brave fight against the racist system – a fight which still continues – and Ms. Johnson is spot-on when he says that “in times like these, his story is a lesson that we all need to learn.”
But let’s not forget the quiet brilliance of Makoons – nor that prequels to both books in this matchup appeared in the battle previous years: The Porcupine Year in 2009 and March: Book 1 three years ago. Along with Grace Lin’s folkloric stories, Makoons is one of the few contemporary books I’ve read that I consider a true “tale.” On every page, Erdrich evokes a sense of simple wonder and innocence with straightforward sentences, endearing humor, vibrant characters, and a rich world. Take this gem on the second page: “Makoons knew that his brother slept beside him now, fed him from a spoon made from a buffalo horn. His brother continued to sing to him until his voice changed from the trill of the chickadee to the harsh and ragged croak of the crow. Still, Chickadee kept on, healing his brother song by song.”
That’s what books do, too. They heal.
– Kid Commentator RGN
Kid Commentator Statement
– Kid Commentator NS
MARCH, BOOK THREE
WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND TWO