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Review of the Day: Race Against Time by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace

Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men
By Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
Calkins Creek (an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane)
ISBN: 9781629798165
On shelves now

They say history is written by the winners, but I’m not so sure about that. Sometimes the winners are entirely written out of history, even when they accomplished something extraordinary. To look at Race Against Time you would not immediately jump to the conclusion that you had a high stakes thriller on your hands. By all appearances it’s a boring old history book. Yet from the very first chapter the authors suck you into the story. It has everything! A hero facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Lives on the line. A man using practically his wits alone to fight injustice. And then to realize that it’s all true, but is a story that practically no one today knows or remembers, that gives you special knowledge. Kids love special knowledge. Adults love special knowledge. And anyone who actually sits down and reads this title will love this book. Jason Bourne has nothing on Scipio Jones.

What started as a meeting to discuss unionizing ended in blood. In October of 1919, a mob of white men descended on a church where Black sharecroppers were meeting. This massacre ended with many dead and twelve of the sharecroppers tried and sentenced to death (hastily, so that they wouldn’t be lynched first). Their fate was sealed. There was no escape. So who could have expected that a man by the name of Scipio Africanus Jones, Black and a self-taught lawyer, would be the answer to their prayers? Determined to set the men free, Scipio used all his tools, all his cunning, and almost all his money to ensure that in a unjust world, true justice would be done.

May I say some words in praise of the very fine character of Scipio Jones? First off, there’s that name. And if it sounds like the name of a hero, that’s simply because it is. Next, there are his distinctive characteristics. His Panama hat. His gold pocket watch (which graces the cover of this book). That first photograph you see of him in the book shows him completely calm and collected, leaning casually on the back of a chair, one foot crossed over the other. He is at perfect ease. But what sets Scipio apart truly are his brains, smarts, and silver tongue. After all, in this book he sets himself up to pretty much do the impossible. Twelve men are sentenced to die in Arkansas in 1920. Scipio, a Black man, is determined to save them, despite all evidence to the contrary. Now it can be difficult for an adult reader to separate what they already know about history from what a child might or might not know when reading this book. And so I wondered as I read, “Are kids reading this understanding the impossibility of Scipio’s task? Are they aware that getting these men off, every last one, could hardly work today, let alone in the early 20th century? And what the Wallaces do so well as they write this story is that they understand right off the bat that they have something rare and wonderful on their hands: an honest-to-god unsung hero. Scipio is what you wish Atticus Finch actually was. And the bonus? Scipio was real!

But as I say, after starting the book by establishing the impossibility of this case, the next job is to ratchet up the tension. That doesn’t sound like it would be hard (lives are on the line, after all) but think about it. A lot of this book hinges on legal interpretations of the law. And as much as I love kids and teens, not a whole slew of them light up like Christmas trees when you utter the words “habeas corpus” in their presence. So the challenge here is to make Scipio’s legal actions interesting and immediate. And honestly, I think they do a mighty fine job of it. Take, for example, the start of Chapter 8. That’s when we learn that six of the men were executed, according to a Chicago newspaper. The catch? It’s not true. The men were alive because Scipio pulled off, what the book calls, “a brilliant ploy” and a “magnificent move”. The federal judge was absent, so Scipio appealed to the chancery court. Its judge, who liked Scipio, ordered the warden not to carry out the executions. In this way, Scipio keeps pushing things a little more, and a little more, and a little further, and further still, until finally at last the men are (spoiler alert) released! In tandem, the text follow his maneuvers. There aren’t many nonfiction stories about truly heroic lawyers out there. Just to have one feels unique.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book is a humbling moment. There, you learn that these days there’s not a lot out there remembering Scipio. His house was declared a national landmark, but it’s abandoned and overgrown with no plaque. A Post Office Station was dedicated to him in 2007 but, as the authors explain, “when we visited there, people had no idea who Scipio was.” A high school was named after him but it burned down. It’s an egregious gap and lack of appreciation for someone who accomplished so much in his lifetime. It also provides a kind of learning opportunity for kids. Anyone reading this book would assume the name Scipio Jones would be well known. There should be movies about him. Picture book biographies at the very least! Instead, there’s just his simple headstone and this book. Proof that you can be a hero and be forgotten unless some investigative journalists in the future take a fancy to your tale.

Ultimately, this book faces a severe problem, so dire that it may prevent any kid, young or old, from picking it up at all. I am talking, of course, about the design. For years I have railed against brown and sepia-toned covers. I don’t care if you’re 5 or 55, nobody ever wants to pick up a book with a jacket the color of weathered cardboard. Let’s say a kid gets past the cover of Race Against Time, though. Maybe they flip through the book. Maybe they start at the beginning. However they do it, they’re going to notice pretty early on that though this book is chock full of photographs and primary source documents, everything is in black and white. Now this is an issue that a lot of children’s informational books have to deal with. How do you show images from the past when color photography wasn’t widely available? Some books find eclectic ways to tackle this problem. Alas, Race Against Time may have had limited funds with which to purchase color printing. The end result is a book coming in at 9 ½ ” X 6 ½ ” that fails to properly distinguish between images that are there just to support the text and images that are key emotional tie-ins. For example, when you finally see that photograph covering two pages of The Elaine Twelve, each man named with information about his life up to that moment, you are first struck by the narrative weight of this image. Then you realize that you have no idea which man is which. Their names and descriptions are not clearly stated in such a way where you can know which face goes with which name. These elements aren’t deal breakers. They’re just avoidable annoyances that should have been dealt with from the start.

It is my sincere hope that Scipio Jones doesn’t end up forgotten for a second time. And so, I’d like to offer some advice to any adults that are trying to figure out how to sell this book to kids. First off, this is a booktalk book, pure and simple. That is to say, this is a book that needs you to stand in front of a group of kids and give the best booktalk of your career. Make it clear that this is a thriller. It starts with Scipio racing to these men and then racing to save them by any means necessary. It doesn’t look it, but show (don’t tell) how gripping the plot can be. And if you want to end it on a cliffhanger, definitely consider ending it when the Chicago newspaper says the men are dead . . . but it’s a lie. A thoroughly rousing story, deserving of wider acclaim. The package may be lacking but the contents are gold.

On shelves now.

Source: Borrowed copy from library for review.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.