Picturing the Civil Rights Movement Through Children's Books

(c) George Ford. Reproduced with permission of High Museum

George Ford's illustration "Ruby said the prayer she repeated twice a day," from The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (Scholastic, 1995), watercolor, acrylic ink, and ink on Strathmore illustration board, collection of the artist.

Yesterday, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, hosted a virtual media preview of its forthcoming in-person exhibition -- the museum recently reopened with a timed ticketing reservation system -- called Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children's Books. The fifth in a series coordinated with the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, this exhibition focuses on crafting children’s books that explore the people and events of the Civil Rights era and is billed as the first of its kind to do so.

“One of the guiding aspects of our mission is a commitment to family audiences,” said the High’s director Rand Suffolk. “Through our children’s book exhibitions, we aim to help adult visitors open meaningful dialogues with the children.” 

In that spirit of openness and a desire to foster important conversations about the Civil Rights Movement, I turned this assignment over to rising sixth-grader Abby Richter, who regularly writes book reviews and interviews authors for Literary Features Syndicate. She sat in on the media preview and filed this report:

© 2009 Raúl Colón. Used by permission of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Digital image by Mike Jensen/courtesy High Museum of Art.

Raúl Colón's illustration for Child of the Civil Rights Movement by
Paula Young Shelton (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2010). Collection of R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Picture the Dream: the Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books, a Zoom presentation, was live Wednesday, August 19. The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, hosted the show, and over 30 people attended and participated, among them New York Times bestselling author Andrea Pinkney, author of several popular children's books including The Red Pencil; and Sit-in, How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down.

The point of the presentation was to show books, specifically picture books, that explore the Civil Rights Movement and are part of the High Museum exhibition.

The first part of the presentation was broken into three sections: The Road Backwards; The Rocks are the Road; and Today’s Journey, Tomorrow’s Promise. Each section contained images from a book with a quote from the story underneath. We saw many types of pictures, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. reciting his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Black girl helping a white girl get over a fence so they could play. 

After that, participants were split into breakout rooms -- mini Zooms -- where we listened to the hosts and had the opportunity to ask questions. In one, we watched a video where people talked about racism of the past such as segregated schools and water fountains. Seeing the footage of people being separated because of what they looked like made me very upset.

The hosts then took questions before rotating us over to a new group. Our new hosts included Andrea and Brian Pinkney who discussed children’s books and their power to educate and entertain.

When I got a chance to ask Andrea Pinkney what made her want to write books -- especially books with a focus on equality -- she answered, “It’s all about storytelling.” She explained that children’s books can teach so much, and also that when kids asked her whether what she wrote “really happened,” she can assure them, “Yes, that did happen.”

At the end of the presentation, we learned that this exhibition had been the result of many years’ work, and the timing of their publication was good and important, because of the issues going on right now.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is open for scheduled visits in case you’re in the area and would like to go, look at the art, and picture the dream. Picture the Dream will be on view through November 8. For those of us unable to attend, selected images and a short film are on display at the museum’s website.