JUDGE – ELIOT SCHREFER
By Jason Reynolds
Simon & Schuster
|March, Book Three
by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions
The beauty of reading books is that they don’t have to duke it out afterwards. I can read me some Dragonlance Chronicles: Dragons of Winter Night on Saturday and some Howards End on Sunday, and I don’t have to decide whether I like gully dwarves and blue dragons more than Edwardian politics and real estate bequests. (Examples drawn at random. Totally, totally at random.)
I had mixed feelings while my novel Endangered was in the Battle of the Books back in 2013. I was all proud of my new little book, and worried about how the world would treat it, and like a nervous parent ushered it out into the world, and it was looking back at me waving as it stepped out into the sunshine, and the birds were chirping all around it, and I shouted “you’ll be fine, kid!” but then the clouds rolled in, and I could see that The Fault in Our Stars was out there waiting for it, and it was so much bigger and stronger, and I screamed “Endangered, baby, come back home, you don’t have to go out there and try to prove anything! Stay with me where it’s warm!” but it was too late. As Martine Leavitt very kindly phrased it in her decision, “I wouldn’t want my book to come up against a John Green book in a dark alley.”
That said, to have librarians, teachers, real teens (!), and authors I’ve long admired discussing something I wrote was so incredibly useful. I still have notes I took from Leavitt’s decision, and Kathi Appelt’s, and the online comments, and they’ve helped me become a better writer. The battle is the pretext for the important work of discussing books. Really, I’d call that a total win for victors and losers both. (A warning shot for this current contest, though: Let me just say that I wouldn’t want my book to come up against a John Lewis book in a dark alley.)
What a year it’s been for March: Book Three! National Book Award, Printz Award, Coretta Scott King Award, Sibert Medal, and the upcoming inevitable Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony grand slam: the only sticker this book jacket doesn’t have at this point is Scratch-n’-Sniff Blueberry. And these stickers are there for very, very good reason. I’ve never read a book (except for March: Book One and March: Book Two) that got my heart rate so consistently high. I was soldered to this novel, filled with constant low levels of panic, melancholy, and hope. In a year that saw President Trump tweeting that John Lewis is “all talk talk talk – no action or results,” this book is resounding proof negative.
What a tremendous portrait of the courage and tenacity of Congressman John Lewis and the civil rights movement. What an argument, too, for graphic novels themselves. From the 1963 Birmingham church bombing through the moment when Obama takes time out of his own inauguration to thank Lewis, we readers are steeped in feeling and mood. Nate Powell’s art manages that trick of staying focused on expressive faces while never losing the epic grandeur of a scene. The pages never lull into repetition, with the composition and the ratio of black to white space varying wildly. Though there are striking images on each panel, the book also has a ton of text, not shying from delving right into thorny or uncomfortable particulars, such as the divisions John Lewis’s trip to Africa created within the American civil rights movement.
In a non-graphic novel, I feel like tone is the result of an accumulation of words, and takes time to accomplish. Whenever I picked up March: Book Three, though, I didn’t have to get more than half a page in to pick up the mood—through the magic of pictures it telegraphed itself, and was the book’s first, rather than last, achievement. This immediacy of the graphic novel form is perfectly combined with the urgency of the events on the page. The sequence in which LBJ watches as Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony draws media focus from him during the Democratic National Convention captures, succinctly and efficiently, the quiet dignity of storytelling wielded against an enormous institutional apparatus intent on controlling message. March: Book Three is accessible to a wide number of readers, young and old, and is essential reading in our here and now.
A quibble: this book doesn’t feel particularly of children’s literature to me, unless you consider all graphic novels to be inherently kidlit, which I do not. I guess I mean that I don’t feel it particularly engages with the experience of being a young person. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that what it has to say will be hugely useful to young readers. I almost don’t want to bring up the question of whether it’s children’s literature, as I would hate any generic classification to prevent March: Book Three from having its impact on the lives of its young readers. Though I finished the book days ago, I keep returning to the words of Diane Nash, represented in its early pages: “Dr. King, when children are murdered. . . we can tell people not to fight only if we offer them a way by which justice can be served without violence.” Useful words in the months and years to come.
If March: Book Three is unlike any other book I’ve read, Ghost has a family resemblance to plenty of other middle grade books, and felt like slipping into a comfortable old sweater, even if one decorated in some new designs. (Awkward metaphor alert.) Castle Cranshaw, also known as the “Ghost” of the title, is on the run. His father shot at him and his mother when he was younger, and has since been in prison. Ghost’s mom has little money to spare and works long hours, and school is a source of bullying and tension. He’s ripe for a mentor, and a release that will finally let him feel good about himself. Running track becomes it.
Though there is something familiar about this “the family we make” premise, Ghost is in no way cliché. Ghost doesn’t become a world track star. His father doesn’t get out of prison at just the worst moment. (Though maybe, since the story will continue in further books, these events will occur in later volumes.) Instead Ghost is a realistically observed, wholly believable account of one kid’s struggle to find a tolerable way to exist in the world. Ghost is “the one who yelled at teachers and punched stupid dudes in the face for talking smack. The one who felt… different. And mad. And sad. The one with all the scream inside.”
Reynolds gets right inside Ghost. Reading can often feel like a three-way conversation between reader and character and author. In an imperfect work, little tics about how a character is presented might say more about the author’s intentions than about the character him/herself. But Reynolds closes the psychic distance on Ghost so fully that the author gets entirely out of the way. When I was reading, it felt like just me and Ghost. I was inside that kid’s brain, completely and truly. What an achievement.
I’m so grateful that Ghost’s story will continue in more books. There’s good reason we love to read about outsiders finally finding a place they belong, and there will always be room for many versions of that tale. Reynolds has done a near faultless job, but because of the guaranteed benefits of Ghost’s comfortable structure, it feels like an easier achievement than March: Book Three. There’s a reason awards committee after awards committee has found March: Book Three to be singular. The book’s design team is lucky that the Battle of the Books doesn’t come with a sticker!
Winner: March: Book Three.
And Lewis’ brilliant story marches on. (Bad pun alert.) I actually teared up reading Mr. Schrefer’s insightful decision, which brought back all the memories of reading March. There’s this moment on page 202 where Lewis, hit by a trooper’s club, says, “I thought I saw death.” The page goes black. “I thought I was going to die.…Get up.…Keep moving.” The page goes white, figures blur on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as if a dream. And John Lewis runs. He keeps moving. Like Ghost, he is running for more than his future. He runs for his family’s future. He runs for his country’s future. As Mr. Schrefer says, whether it’s a kids’ book or not, March: Book Three deeply deserves the attention it’s gotten. Let’s remember it for years to come.
– Kid Commentator RGN
I despise Round Two. The picks are almost always more difficult than the Round 1 picks. And alas that means losing one of my favorites, Ghost. I was running (pun intended) on the high of Ghost’s first match win after The Girl Who Drank the Moon fell prey to the Newbery curse. But my heart sank when I read your warning, Mr. Schrefer. “I wouldn’t want my book to come up against a John Lewis book in a dark alley.” If March and Ghost met up in a dark alley, I would hope that Ghost would run far, far away. Sorry, I can’t resist the plethora of potential puns. (And I obviously can’t resist alliterating either.) But all puns aside, March’s win is more than well deserved. Regardless of if it “engages with the experience of being a young person” (although it does for me, a young person), it is a book for the ages.
– Kid Commentator NS
MARCH, BOOK THREE
WILL MOVE ON
TO ROUND THREE