review: Abina and the Important Men

51D8krUdPLL._AA160_title: Abina and the Important Men
author: Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clark
date: 2012 Oxford University Press
non-fiction graphic novel
recommended for older teens

Abina and the Important Men is a nonfiction graphic novel of the case Regina v. Quamina Eddoo, 10 Nov 1876. The case will be 140 years old this November.

Abina Mansah brought a claim against Quamina Eddoo that he enslaved her, that this enslavement was illegal and she requested her freedom. By 1876, Britain had made slavery illegal at home and in all its colonies. Great Britain then set up a system of government that placed Ghanaians in administrative positions with Britain maintaining control over the country.

Abina Mansah believed that she had been enslaved by Quamina Eddoo and the only way to gain her freedom was in the courts. This essentially meant taking her complaint to The Important Men, those whom Ghanaian tradition and British legalities granted power over women and children. The illustrations display how the colonial system of government placed African men in European suits and left them to rely upon the British system of government to maintain Ghana’s society. British law attempted to codify slavery in Ghana and to make it illegal while still respecting traditional practices.

Abina proves to be much more articulate and resourceful than expected. She is a young woman, completely alone yet not willing to step down for the sake of her freedom. In describing being free, Abina states that it wasn’t about the work or the beatings. “It was not being in control of my own life… Not being able to care for myself…To decide whom I wanted to marry. These are the things I could no longer take.”

While the book does an excellent job of portraying Ghana as it transitioned from a traditional to a colonial society, it was intended simply to give a voice to someone who would otherwise be written out of history. As the author indicates, it’s the powerless whose voices are silenced. They are often never recorded, not archived and not accurately transcribed into history. Those who control the pen seem to control the history (African proverb).

As our economy shifts such that 62 people have the wealth equal to half the world’s population, I have to wonder if we’re becoming a society of Important Men who take care of the women and children. Think about Flint. Trayvon Martin. The school to prison pipeline for black girls. Peyton Manning (maybe?). Bill Cosby (maybe?). Oops! This is a book review, not an editorial.

Consider this books for reading and educational purposes. The transcripts upon which the story is based can be found in the back of the book.

review: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter

Title:  When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter
Author: Sona Rosa
Illustrator: Luciana Justiniani Hees
Date: Groundwood Books; 2015
picture book; nonfiction

Author Sonia Rose and illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees created this non-fiction picture book to commemorate the life of Esperanca Garcia, the first enslaved Afro Brasilian to write a letter of petition for her freedom. The date of the writing of this letter, 6 September, has become Black Consciousness Day in Piauí state. The original letter was uncovered in 1979 and is now in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal. (Brasil was a Portuguese colony.)

Esperança’s story is a testament to the power of writing and the strength of hope.

openinEsperança wasn’t treated “so badly” by the priests who first owned her and who taught her to read and write but circumstances arose that caused her to be sold. While her children stayed with her, her husband did not.  “Others who came with me to the captain’s house are also being badly treated. The captain seems to have a stone in place of a heart.” Esperança detailed her existence to the governor of the state of Piauí to ask that the beatings end, that her daughter be baptized and that she could live with her husband again. A portion of the original letter is in the book.

This book is an important addition to children’s literature for several reasons. Most important, it makes young people aware of the African diaspora by introducing them to enslaved Africans in Brasil. (More Africans were taken to Brazil than to any other country in the Americans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.) Older readers can be made aware of the complexities of enslavement. When non Europeans were first enslaved, it was justified by saying they weren’t Christian,, another way of rationalizing that they were not equal to Europeans. (Somewhat related information can be found here.) We read that Esperança wants to receive the sacraments and to have her daughter baptized. Was her marriage also viewed as a saccrament? We see variations on inhumanity as enslavement locates in other cultures.

day.  night

Hees’ artwork connects Esperança to this land and to this place. The striking use of colors, from pages fill with pinks, then greens and then blues and purple remind us of the passage of time.

hairMorning came softly, a timid sun graced the sky. Birds were
singing in the trees. It was time for
Esperança Garcia to get up. She rose from another sleepless night. She slowly fixed her hair and wiped away the tears that kept falling, even as she struggled to hold them back. Today was another day of waiting for the answer to her letter.


This story is uncomplicated, delivering a powerful messages of hope and resistance.

So many images of looking back remind me of ‘sankofa’.


We don’t know if she ever receives a response, but we know the tremendous courage that was enacted when Esperanca Garcia wrote that letter.  First published in Brasil in 2012, When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter made its English debut in late 2015. Sonia Rosa is a teacher who specializes in reading, culture and African history. She’s written over 35 books. Luciana Justiniani Hees is a Brazilian illustrator who illustrates using African and Afro-Brasilian themes.


book review: March Book One

marchbookone_softcoverTitle: March Book One
Authors: John Lewis, Andres Aydin and Nate Powell
Date: Top Shelf Productions, 2013
graphic novel; nonfiction

March Book One describes John Lewis’ early interest in equality and civil rights. The first hand account relates how Lewis found his voice and became connected to the formal Civil Rights Movement.

March is told in graphic novel form and is written by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. The three collaborated to combine text and images to tell a striking story. The story begins with Lewis not wanting to leave the warmth of his bed or his soft slippers. Surely, this parallels the struggles he had in giving up the comfort of his family to fight for the rights of strangers, leaving behind the warmth and security for the sake of a call to duty. Matching word to text allows the authors to underscore meanings in a vivid, emotional and wordless way. This young man who cared and preached to the absolute lowest of the low, his family’s chickens, could not help but be overwhelmed with concern for the his black brothers and sisters, those white society saw as their least.

While at the office, two young boys, Jacob and Esau happen to stop by with their mother to visit the congressman’s on what seems to be the day President Obama is being inaugurated. Lewis takes the opportunity to tell them his story and March unfolds. Jacob and Esau? Biblical names of twins who fought inside their mother’s womb. Their story is one of birthrights.

I don’t read graphic novels often and some of the standard visual references were lost on me. I’m not sure what open panels mean. I did catch that crucial moments were displayed in much larger panels, providing more room to convey meaning. I was provided ‘aha’ moments as I uncovered meanings in passages, thus making personal connections to John Lewis and his story. Not only because it’s written in graphic form, but because of how these past events are contextualized into the future, I think young readers will relate to John Lewis and his message of answering the call. The last scenes in the book move from a ringing landline to a ringing cell phone. Who is calling and why are answers for Book Two.

I enjoyed this book. The most memorable scene for me was on page 27 when Lewis states ”by the time I march_book_two_72dpi_copy1was five, I could read it [The Bible] myself, and one phrase struck me strongly, though I couldn’t comprehend its full meaning at the time” and the words are written on the character’s back. Some of the frames confused me when I couldn’t relate the text to the image. I would love to have had an author’s note on what inspired this book or telling whom Lewis consulted with to jolt and clarify his memories but as it stands, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to young readers.

Coretta Scott King Honor Book
ALA Notable Book
YALSA’s Top 10 Great Graphic Novels for Teens
YALSA’s Outstanding Books for the College Bound
2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award Special Honor

review: Qutugh Terkan Khatum of Kirman

title: Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman
author: Shirin Yim Bridges
illustrator: Albert Nguyen
date: Goosebottom Books, 2010

Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman is an award winning volume in the Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses. Qutlugh ruled in Kiman, a region in Persia. Rescued from enslavement as a child, her benefactor educated her and treated her quite well. Qutlugh lived a fortunate life, becoming a princess and a ruler of many people, She acquired much power and used it to benefit others. Her story reads quite different from other rulers who manipulate and murder to maintain their positions.

In reading her story, we learn much about the Persian culture and how different Qutlugh’s life was from ours. The story is documented with some photos that are well placed throughout to emphasize important details while others add background details. It’s eye-opening to realize how few details are left about this woman who ruled for 26 years.

other books in this series

review: Percy Lavon Julian Pioneering Chemist

title: Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist Signature Lives Series

author: Darlene R. Stille

date: Compass Point Books; 2009


reading level: 7.0

preview the book

There is a very limited range of biographies of people of color that are available for middle and high school readers, so I was glad to find Percy Lavon: Pioneering Chemist for my school media center.

I think in reviewing and booktalking non-fiction books to students, we have to begin to teach them to look at these books in ways they don’t typically treat fiction. Most important, they have to learn to look at the credibility of these books more so that the size of the volume or its overall attractiveness. Looking in the back of this book, I found a ‘selected bibliography’ that only listed secondary and tertiary sources. Yes, even Julian’s quotes in this book are lifted from non-primary sources.

Julian was born in Alabama in 1899 and in explaining his life, it is no doubt important to explain the conditions that Blacks faced in this region at that time. In this book, the description of this era is highlighted with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. from the 1960s. Images of individuals are often separated from the textual context by several pages. While there are several images of Julian throughout the book, none show him actually engaged in work. As I’ve learned from reading Marc Aronson’s blog, we have to learn to read the images as well. This separation distracts from the importance of the individuals being discussed.

There’s a thin line between great and bad non-fiction as both leave you wanting to know more. The really good stuff engages readers in a way that leads them to wonder while the poorly written stuff leaves one to question events and details.

There was much to learn about Percy Lavon Julian and his numerous contributions to science. For example, through his work with soybeans, Julian was the first to synthesize steroids. But, I never got to know about his temperament, why he was accepted to DePauw or what his friendship with Joseph Pikl was like. While the discrimination of the times was presented, it was never made personal. Consequently, it was difficult to know what life really was like for Julian.

While this book stands as rare print documentation of someone who made significant contributions to history, it leaves out important elements that would help to make Julian less of a caricature and more human. I am glad that my students have at least this much information about Dr. Julian, but in learning how to effectively analyze these types of books, perhaps they’ll become motivated to add to the body of literature about people of color.



book review: They called themselves the KKK

"With compelling clarity, anecdotal detail, and insight, Bartoletti presents the complex era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, that gave rise to the KKK." ! ~SLJ

title: They called themselves the K.K.K.: The birth of an American terrorist group

author: Susan Campbell Bartoletti

date: Houghton Mifflin, 2010


I’d been hearing about They called themselves the K.K.K. for quite some time now and from what I’d heard, I expected it to deliver a good read. And that it did!

In the bibliography at the rear of the text, Bartoletti  states that her purpose in writing this book is to give testament to the victims of atrocities committed by the K.K.K.. She does this by describing how the Klan came into existence and how it set out to rob Black citizens of their power as American citizens after the Civil War.  Bartoletti uses a variety of images that relate the attitudes of hatred and bigotry that existed at that time while also showing Blacks as educators, intellectuals, farmers, parents, workers, leaders and as victims. These images reach us on an emotional level that the text avoids.

The book takes us from the little meeting in Pulaski, TN where the boys got themselves a club that grew in so much political and societal strength that it was able to perpetuate the grasp of racism on this country and deny opportunities for Blacks for decades to come. We get the details of clothing choices, involvement of women and copies of their rules and regulations.

And, we get their actions. The brutality suffered by several named individuals is related in ways that don’t focus on the grotesque, but that does get the point across. Layered with the story of these individuals is the story of the political play of numerous groups, including the republican and democratic parties. At the same time, Bartoletti lets us know that not all injustices against Blacks were limited to southern states, and that much of the reason the Klan was able to thrive was that Whites lived in fear, too.

I think this books should be in every high school and public library to help young adults understand how racism is perpetuated in this country as well as to understand how power is attained.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is an award winning, full-time writer.

review: Panther Baby A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention

“This spirited, well-honed account of cutting his teeth as a member of the Black Panthers brings Joseph back to his youth, a painful time in late-1960s America.” Publishers Weekly

title: Panther Baby
author: Jamal Joseph
date: Algonquin Books; February, 2012
reading level: 6.0

Honestly, I didn’t want to read Panther Baby when Doret first suggested it. But since I trust her judgment of books, I read the book and I’m so glad I did! I’ve wanted to put Panther Baby into the hands of every young man and every teacher of young men that I’ve seen since finishing it.

In Panther Baby, Jamal Joseph (born Eddie Joseph) relates personal and historic reasons that brought him to join the Black Panther Party. Quickly tracing developments from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights movement through the history of the family with whom he is living, we see how revolutionaries of the sixties were almost a natural development from previous generations. Joseph was an intelligent, keenly aware and angry  young Black man who through a series of circumstances decided to join the Black Panther Party.  In his anger, he sees the Panthers as a militant organization that will allow him to fight any and every person who crosses his purposeful path. He quickly learned  however, that the Panthers were more about doing right than being right; that their struggle was more a class struggle than a race struggle and that their aim was to overthrow the capitalist system that perpetuated inequality and injustice. Readers soon learn that Panthers were not anti-White. They were anti-establishment and anti-government.

Joseph details many community programs run by the Panthers as well as their training with firearms. When he ends up in prison the first time, I think I as a reader began to really see Jamal’s deep commitment to the organization. He never seemed to question how he was betrayed. Rather, he took what he had learned from the Panthers and used it to empower his fellow prisoners. He learned the ways of prison life just as he learned the ways of the street and the ways of the Panthers, all of this being a code of decency which when maneuvered correctly allowed one to give and receive respect through proper treatment of others. While interactions with women were somewhat limited in the book, Joseph even learned how to give proper respect to women through both implicit and explicit lessons.

Joseph managed to write a complex story in a voice that rings clear and true. Make no mistake: Joseph’s story is a controversial piece of history told from one perspective. While part of me wondered what the story would look like told from another perspective, this is Joseph’s story and as a biography, its merit is on the author’s ability to express his life’s story with honesty and integrity to that others will want

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not so desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. ~Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

to read it.  I wanted to finish this book because of the story Joseph was telling about fighting for humanity.

Part of me wants to excuse myself for not knowing about this piece of history because I was in elementary school when much of it happened. However, Jamal Joseph was all of 15 when he first joined the Black Panthers. His activism began early and did nothing but grow from that point. I think Doret wanted me to read this book because much of it occurs during Joseph’s young adult years and we’re with him as he acquires important life lessons.

Although released as an adult book, Panther Baby belongs in every high school and public library collection.

I would suggest reading Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience prior to reading Panther Baby. I think reading this early American Revolutionary will accentuate the Panther’s cause and enhance the message.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Joseph could have said this as easily as Thoreau.

 American Libraries interview with Jamal Joseph

edited 29 March 2016