What a lovely marvel this book is.
This is a picture book biography of John Roy Lynch, who was freed from slavery at 16 and within ten years was elected to the United States Congress. The book doesn’t try to cover Lynch’s entire life (though there’s great back matter including a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and detailed author and illustrator notes) but instead traces his childhood, early life, and the period he becomes involved in politics and a passionate promoter of the Civil Rights Act of 1865. It puts all of these events in Lynch’s life in the larger context of Reconstruction in America. And two key questions that come up when considering this book are: why Reconstruction and why John Roy Lynch?
I believe because this is a story from over 140 years ago that is still relevant in all the things that are happening around us every day. This is a story that will challenge young readers to think about America and opportunity and history in new ways. This is not an easy read – but it’s engaging, compelling, and perfect for starting discussions with kids. Not only do I believe children can handle tough discussions, I believe we owe it to them to teach them to think critically about hard issues. What I love about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is that it shows children a hard period in American history and doesn’t flinch away from it. More than that, it asks the reader to think about how these systems of inequality impact the world we live in today.
Lots of this is due to Barton’s clear-headed and even-handed writing. John Roy Lynch is not held up as a perfect person, instead he comes across as someone hungry to learn and honest at all costs. He seems real. We meet him as a young boy, enslaved and already clued in to the racket of slavery. We follow him through his time growing up and gaining freedom in many senses of the word. And as the reader learns about Lynch’s life, Barton also shows us what reconstruction was like – the great strides in freedom and equality that came for many African-Americans is shown alongside the fierce retaliation from white Americans. This is no easy biography – by choosing to put Lynch’s life in context, Barton not only shows how truly amazing his life’s journey was but how brutal the backlash to Reconstruction was. (and slavery is also shown as a brutal institution perpetuated by white people, specifically in Lynch’s case his master’s wife, who hid behind Christian dogma. Again, this is a clear-headed choice which makes the narrative stand out and ring true.) This is a book that elicits discussion with kid readers: what could have John Roy Lynch’s life and career looked like without the backlash against Reconstruction?
The other stand-out element in this book are Don Tate’s illustrations which, like Barton’s text, are clear-headed and sharp-focused. Tate’s illustrations are beautiful, there’s that. There are a few scenes- Lynch standing on a hill in the silhouette of a sunset, Lynch orating to a crowd of mostly African-American men that are just beautiful and inspiring in the purest sense of the word. But Tate’s illustrations are also very smart and, let’s be honest, brave. It’s brave to show the KKK in full terror mode on the ride in a children’s book, it’s brave to show black men being whipped and threatened during slavery and afterwards. Brave because there are going to be many people who say, “That doesn’t belong in a children’s book!” and brave because there are going to be people who say, “Yes, racism was bad but there’s no reason to be so GRAPHIC about it.” But Tate knows that’s a lie. There IS a reason to show these things – because children deserve the truth, because John Roy Lynch’s story isn’t complete without this, because these are the things John Roy Lynch and his contemporaries lived through and it informs their struggles and their triumphs and kid readers should know and think about that.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite illustrations.
This is a two-page spread looking at the reaction in Mississippi to the days after freedom. I love how Tate has chosen to show the whole landscape here – the fury on the face of the white people, the sorrow on the face of the African-Americans. There is a lot happening here, it’s not all easy to see, but it’s important. And again, this is a picture that shows the reader the depth and stakes of a story. Great stuff.
I think this is one of the smartest pictures in the book – a class of white children learn in a public school … and in the background, we see a small window of John Roy Lynch listening and learning. Tate lets readers see how Lynch was excluded from so-called public institutions but how his curiosity and hunger to learn were unstoppable.
Another favorite: Barton’s text talks about John Roy’s rise in both politics and his personal life. This description of John Roy’s determination is perfectly illustrated by Tate, who gets across the charisma and force of presence John Roy would have certainly had to have. And oh my goodness how fabulous is THIS image of African-Americans – an almost entirely African-American crowd is enthralled by John Roy – showing the reader a lot about the strides happening for African-Americans in the era, with John Roy Lynch leading the way.
Everything about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is special. It’s a book that asks children to think big thoughts and ask hard questions about eras of history that are too often glossed over and about the era we live in now. It’s ambitious, interesting, original and very beautiful. It’s meant to be shared and discussed with kids and I recommend it as a first purchase for public libraries looking to enrich their children’s non-fiction collection and especially for elementary school librarians and classroom teachers working with 3rd-6th grades. It’s a great supplement for history lessons and will hopefully make young learners even more curious about our country’s history, all the parts of it – the amazing and hard ones.
- You can find more info, including a discussion guide, at Eerdman’s official page for the book.
- There’s an amazing interview with Don Tate at Seven Impossible Things that has insight into his process and some really great shots of more illustrations.
AND I’M GIVING A COPY AWAY!
Not just a copy but a copy signed by both Chris Barton and Don Tate.
To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog by Friday, June 5th.
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is out now and if you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your library. If they don’t own one, request they add it!