March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

  • Title: March: Book One
  • Author: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1603093001
  • List Price: $14.95 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 128
  • Age Range: 12+
  • Genre: historical nonfiction/autobiography
  • Award(s): YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens;  Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor

Author information: John Lewis is a United States Congressman, representing Georgia’s fifth district since 1986. He has written his biography for adults, but March is his first title for a younger audience and the first in the graphic novel format. His website focuses primarily on his government work, with sections of the site devoted to legislation he has and continues to work on, his congressional district, contact information, resources, and information about professional and internship opportunities. ComicsAlliance interviewed Lewis and co-author/artist Andrew Aydin about the book. Lewis says that Aydin was the one who convinced him to do a graphic novel retelling of his biography, and he’s glad that he did it because he feels it brings his story to life and makes it more present and dynamic.

Reviews: Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus all gave this title starred reviews. They all agree that this is a powerfully told tale about our nation’s history, and that the graphic novel format helps bring John Lewis’ life story alive to a new generation. The artwork gives the book a “visual, visceral punch” (Library Journal). Former President Bill Clinton also reviewed this title, and said, “Congressman John Lewis has been a resounding moral voice in the quest for equality for more than 50 years, and I’m so pleased that he is sharing his memories of the Civil Rights Movement with America’s young leaders. In March, he brings a whole new generation with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from a past of clenched fists into a future of outstretched hands.”

Readers annotation: John Lewis has lived a remarkable life, from a chicken farm to the United States House of Representatives. And he has changed the course of our nation’s history.

Summary: John Lewis is well known as a key figure in the civil rights movement as well as a current United States Congressman, and this book tells the story of his life and his fight for justice and equal rights. The first in a three part series, this book covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama and his experiences raising chickens on his family’s farm. In high school he became very serious about his studies and his desire to make a difference, and after a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. he decided he wanted to fight to be accepted at a non-integrated university. His family was wary of this and would not give their permission, but Lewis found other ways to get involved in the civil rights movement. He was involved in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, a movement dedicated to non-violent social change. This first book is set against a modern backdrop; Lewis is talking to a mother and her children about his life right before he attends the inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.

Evaluation: This is a very powerful book. The use of the graphic novel format makes John Lewis’ story immediate and urgent in a way that a traditional retelling would not, and the medium also allows a younger audience to connect with Lewis and the civil rights movement in a new way. The story of Lewis’ youth is framed against his life as a U.S. Congressman about to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, and this conceit works beautifully on many levels–it shows how far the United States as a nation has come and how far it still has to go, and it makes explicit the fact that Lewis is telling this story to a new generation who may not understand what the social and political climate was like in the 1950s and 60s. Lewis is a supremely likable protagonist, both in his modern Congressman iteration as well as when he is a naive young boy learning about racism and segregation for the first time. The story that he tells about how he joins the non-violence movement and his experience with the lunch counter sit-ins is better than any fiction retellings of these events and reminds readers that this is a real thing that happened only a few decades ago. This first installment is bound to intrigue readers and make them eager for the forthcoming books, and it brings new life to a crucial period in United States history.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is beautiful and visceral, Lewis is a compelling protagonist, and the story is riveting.
  • Popularity4/5  As reluctant as kids and teenagers often are when it comes to reading nonfiction, the graphic novel format of this title will curb many doubts and cause readers who don’t usually read nonfiction to give this title a try. Those who read it won’t be disappointed, and will eagerly await the next installments of this series.
  • Appeal factors: historical nonfiction, Civil Rights, John Lewis, graphic novels.


  1.  Readers who are interested in exploring another graphic novel set in the Civil Rights era should check out Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. This title looks at segregation and civil rights as well as homophobia during the 1960s, and does a good job representing the prejudices that racial and sexual minorities faced during this time.
  2. Both John Lewis and Andrew Aydin mention that Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a heavy influence on their work, and it would be a good recommendation for readers who liked March‘s nonfiction and autobiographical subject presented in graphic novel form. Like March, Maus shifts between events that happened in the past and frames them as a story told in the present, and both titles show the cruelty of humankind as well as its resilient spirit.

Book talk ideas: I would stress the fact that this a true story written by a key player in civil rights movement, who is currently a United States Congressman. It would be useful to show a portion of the artwork (maybe a page or two from the sit-ins or the preparation the protesters did for the sit-ins) to give potential readers an idea of what the artwork looks like and the visceral experience that reading this story as a graphic novel allows. It may also be interesting to ask the audience how many of them have even heard of John Lewis, to see how familiar they are with the subject.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why did the key players of the civil rights movement stress non-violence? What do you think this accomplished?
  2. John Lewis’ family didn’t want him to try to integrate a university. Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?
  3. How does using the graphic novel form enhance the telling of Lewis’ story?

Reason for reading: I did my topical presentation about graphic novels. I love the format, and I think it provides a perfect medium to tell emotionally intense nonfiction stories (like Maus, Persepolis, Pyongyang, etc.) because it makes the narrative very immediate and visceral. This title wasn’t on my radar until I did my presentation and saw it on the YALSA Great Graphic Novels list, and that, coupled with the response to discussing the title during the actual presentation, convinced me that it was something I needed to read immediately. 

Additional relevant information: The ComicsAlliance interview with Lewis and Aydin is wonderful, and would be a great tool for teachers or librarians who plan to feature this title in programming or the classroom. In the interview, they talk about collaborating on the book, how it came to be, and also talk about specific scenes, such as the one where Lewis and his friends prepare each other for the abuse they might face during the course of the movement. This gives great insight into some of the artistic and creative decisions that were made with the book. The interview also discusses the decision to frame this book as a story told on Inauguration Day, which both writers felt was important because “generations from now people will forget what that meant. They’ll be raised not remembering what it was like before we had our first black president. So hopefully this will in some way not just help people look forward, but help those in the future be able to look backward, and remember where we were then and how long that took, how much that took, and what the opportunities we have today mean and they open up for all of us.”


The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

  • Title: The First Part Last
  • Author: Angela Johnson
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2003
  • ISBN: 0689849222
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award winner; Coretta Scott King author award; more here.

Author information: Angela Johnson has written over 40 books and has won numerous awards for her writing, including three Coretta Scott King awards, the Ezra Jack Keats award for new authors, and a Printz award. Her books range from titles for early readers to works for young adults, and her website includes links to all of her titles organized by age group. Her website also includes biographical information about herself and a list of honors and awards that her works have received. In an interview with CCBC, Johnson talks about her books and her writing style. She discusses the challenges of getting into the head of an adolescent boy for The First Part Last and how the dynamic between Bobby and his friends represents the teenage male bond–Bobby’s friends are there for him and support him, but will crack a joke or say something mean when things get too serious in order to diffuse the tension.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. These reviews all suggest that the writing is the strength of the novel; Johnson uses spare sentences to construct her characters and narrative and evoke emotion. They agree that Bobby is a well-developed character and that the issues presented in this novel will resonate with young readers.

Readers annotation: Bobby is your typical sixteen year old boy–except now he has to take care of a baby.

Summary: On his sixteenth birthday, Bobby finds out he is going to be a father. In a narrative that alternates between the past and the present, Bobby explains both the events leading up to his daughter’s birth as well as how his life changes after. He and his baby’s mother, Nia, struggle with deciding whether to keep the baby or give it up for adoption as well as how to cope with having a baby when they are still teenagers themselves. Flashes of Bobby’s life after the birth of his daughter show him exhausted and sleep-deprived, uncertain whether he will be able to manage as a father. In spite of his self-doubt and exhaustion, he loves his daughter, and at the end of the novel, he tells Feather about her mother. Nia suffered from eclampsia when Feather was born and is now in a permanent coma. Bobby decides that he and Feather need a fresh start, so they  move to Heaven, Ohio to build their life together.

Evaluation: I appreciate many aspects of this novel, but I don’t know if it worked as a whole for me. The tone of the book was raw and real, and the immediacy of Bobby’s life and the despair he feels at being a child trying to raise a child is tangible. His voice is honest, and he alternates between being an innocent and naive sixteen year old and being a father who is shouldering a burden that he doesn’t know if he can bear, which seems like an accurate representation of teen parents. Readers will sympathize with Bobby’s plight and root for his success, and their hearts will break for him upon the obvious but tragic revelation that Nia is (essentially) dead. The narrative style of flashing between points in time works well and paints a solid picture of what Bobby’s life was like before and after the birth of Feather. The novel’s use of short chapters and flashes through time makes the story read quickly, but the narrative loses some strength of characterization regarding the secondary characters as well as provides an underdeveloped understanding of Bobby’s life and future plans. This is clearly a narrative choice as opposed to sloppy writing, but the novel left too many unanswered questions for me to really invest in what was happening. That, coupled with the predictability of the plot, were the major weaknesses of the text. However, this book will likely attract reluctant readers due to its short length, quick chapters, and relatable narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The language is beautiful and Bobby’s plight is sympathetic, but the plot is underdeveloped and predictable.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The short chapters and strong narrative voice is sure to attract readers, especially reluctant readers.
  • Appeal factors: urban fiction, teen pregnancy, coping with loss, African-American protagonist.


  1. Readers who want another book with emotional gravitas that deals with tough life experiences and features a non-white protagonist might try Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Although Alexie’s novel is more humorous than Johnson’s, the humor is biting and highlights the pain and injustice that the characters suffer, and Alexie delivers an emotional punch with his narrative.
  2. My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt might be a good fit for readers who are looking for another urban fiction title. While the main struggle in Johnson’s book is teen pregnancy, Leavitt focuses on drugs and the downward spiral that they can cause. Leavitt’s protagonist, like Bobby, finds herself trying to protect a younger and more vulnerable child from the harsh realities that she has to live through.

Book talk ideas: Perhaps start the book talk by asking the audience what differences they think there might be between a teenager’s life and a teenager with a baby’s life. Then read a chapter or passage from the book to highlight Bobby’s struggles–possibly one where he talks about his exhaustion or when he spends the night in the hospital with Feather. Then give a brief description of the book and talk about how it switches between past and present tense.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why do you think Bobby’s mother refuses to help with the baby? Do you agree with her decision?
  2. The author flips between the past and the present. Do you think this technique worked? How does it influence the way the story is told?
  3. Do you agree with Bobby’s choice to keep the baby? What would you have done?

Reason for reading: I’ve read fairly extensively when it comes to YA literature. It’s always been an area of interest of mine; last year I took a teen materials class for my degree and during fall semester I held an internship in the YA department of the Mill Valley Library. I made a conscious choice not to reread books I’ve already read for this project, because I feel there are so many valuable titles out there that I haven’t read that it would be a disservice to just reuse books I’m already familiar with. Johnson’s book is a title I probably never would have picked up outside this class. I don’t tend to gravitate towards urban fiction and the cover and book description didn’t do much in convincing me to read it. However, I thought it would be a great title to review precisely because it’s outside my comfort zone.

A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant

  • Title: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
  • Author: Jen Bryant
  • Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0375867120
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 5-8
  • Genre: biography
  • Award(s): Sibert Honor book; more here.

Author information: Jen Bryant has written more than a dozen books for children. Her website includes a photographic biography, a list of her published works, events at which she will be appearing, contests for giveaways, a link to her blog, information for teachers, a description of her writing process, and contact information. In an interview on her website, Bryant says she did not think about becoming a writer until she was 30 years old. She had just had a baby and wanted a career that would give her flexibility and allow her to spend more time with her family. Her number one tip to young people who aspire to be writers is to read: “read what you like, but also try to read books and magazines that challenge your intellect and your imagination”.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus. All of these reviews mention the mixed media illustrations that Sweet has created for this book, and how they give the title a “folksy” and “refreshing” feeling. Kirkus also mentions that “Bryant’s text is understated, letting Pippin’s frequent quotations glimmer along with the art”. Booklist calls this book “a well-structured narrative with recurring themes and a highly accessible style”.

Readers annotation: In spite of the obstacles, Horace Pippin knew he was meant to be an artist.

Summary: Horace Pippin drew pictures from a young age. He gave his artwork to friends and family members, who loved his pictures. Horace joined the army during World War I and kept drawing, but he was shot and lost the functionality in his right arm, which was the arm he used to draw. Although this could have stopped his art career forever, Horace slowly taught himself to paint by using his left hand to hold his right arm up, and he was able to make art once again. Slowly his artwork started being noticed, and his paintings were displayed in museums and galleries around the United States.

Evaluation: This book is fun to read and has a wonderful message. Bryant tells the story in an accessible and simple style that really allows the artwork and the Pippin quotes to be the main focus of the work. She highlights his determination and his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles that would prevent him from pursuing his passion. The quotes from Horace Pippin are peppered throughout the text and give the reader more insight into Pippin’s creative process and his character. The true delight of this book is the artwork. The illustrations are busy and crammed with different colors and textures, giving the reader the feeling that they are getting a glimpse directly into Pippin’s imagination. His creativity is at the heart of this story and the illustrations really highlight this fact. The book concludes with a brief historical note that gives the readers a more fact-based look at Horace Pippin’s life, and both the author and illustrator discuss their experiences creating this book. This gives the reader a stronger understanding of Pippin as well as adds a personal touch.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork and narrative are great, and the inclusion of Pippin’s quotes enhances the story. The colorful illustrations reflect the imaginative and creative personality of Horace Pippin.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will be astounded by Pippin’s dedication to his craft and his desire to be an artist, even when it becomes difficult. They will also enjoy the fun illustrations, which will spark their own imaginations.
  • Appeal factors: biography, artists, African American protagonists, overcoming adversity.


  1. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport would be a great fit for readers who want to read another biography of an African American who triumphed over adversity. This book also includes quotes from MLK interspersed with the text, much as Bryant does in this title.
  2. Readers who want another biography about a famous artist may enjoy Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker. This book uses similar colorful and busy illustrations to represent the imagination of Henri Matisse.

Book talk ideas: This book is mostly about overcoming obstacles and the power of passion and imagination over difficulties. I would ask potential readers to think about a time in their lives when they ran into an obstacle and think about how they handled that. I would then ask them to imagine that they are a painter, but they hurt the hand they use to draw, and ask them how they would overcome that. This discussion would lead segue into talking about Horace Pippin and the fact that he still became a famous artist even though he had to overcome many difficulties along the way.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How do the illustrations of the book contribute to the tone of the book?
  2. Which of the Horace Pippin quotes is your favorite? Why?
  3. What qualities did Horace Pippin have that made him successful?

Reason for reading: I read this book after I had already finalized my list of picture books that I was going to review for this class. I’ve been very interested in reading biographies lately, and I’ve also been trying to be more conscious of the imbalance between children’s books with white protagonists and those with main characters of color, so this title jumped out at me as a great read to satisfy both of these requirements. I was so captivated that I bumped one of the titles off my review list (sorry, David Weisner’s Tuesday) to make room to talk about this book.

Additional relevant information: This book has its own website which includes some great resources for teachers and parents. These include a discussion guide, links to websites with more information about Pippin, and photographs of pages of Horace Pippin’s WWI notebook, complete with illustrations. This would be a great resource for those who want to delve deeper into Horace Pippin’s life.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport

  • Title: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Author: Doreen Rappaport
  • Illustrator: Bryan Collier
  • Publisher: Hyperion Books
  • Year Published: 2001
  • ISBN: 1423106350
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 5+
  • Genre: biography
  • Award(s): Coretta Scott King Honor Book; Caldecott Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Doreen Rappaport has a very robust and comprehensive website. The homepage includes recent important information, such as links to her most recent published titles and recent blog articles. Her about section not only includes information about herself, but also information about illustrators she has worked with. In her section about her books, she has organized titles into sections based on topic, including sections for women’s history, Holocaust titles, and African American history as well as recent releases. Her most recent title, Beyond Courage, has it’s own tab on her website and includes links to reviews and articles about the book as well as resources for people who may want to learn more about this subject. Her website also has a section for teachers, with resources and ideas for using her titles in a classroom setting, as well as information about upcoming events she will be speaking at. Rappaport includes this quote from herself as her reason for doing the work she does: “I want to write stories that empower kids to know that other people empowered themselves. If I have a mission, that’s my mission.”

Reviews: This title received positive reviews, including a starred review from Booklist. Many of the reviews highlight that Rappaport uses King’s own words to paint a picture of his ideals and his character, and that this title is a great introductory biography of an iconic Civil Rights activist. School Library Journal comments on the fact that the author and illustrator preface the work by explaining why and how Dr. King inspired them, and the book concludes on a hopeful note by reminding readers that King’s words are immortal. Most of the reviews also commend the cut-paper technique used in the illustrations.

Readers annotation: Words can be powerful. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his big words to change a nation.

Summary: This biography starts with young Martin and his mother looking at a sign saying “Whites Only”. When Martin gets upset, his mother tells him that he is as good as anybody. As he grew up, Martin decided he would use his words to enact change. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the Montgomery bus boycott. When others advocated violence, he advocated peace. Many white Americans were afraid of him, and his home and family were threatened as a result of his actions, but he refused to stop. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and delivered the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He was shot and killed in Memphis because of his work, but his words and spirit still live on.

Evaluation: This book is beautiful, not only because of its large and eye-catching cut-paper illustrations, but also because of its tender portrayal of Dr. King and his life’s work and legacy. The narrative text is enhanced by the use of Dr. King’s own “big words”. These quotes show his dedication, courage, wisdom, and love for all of humanity, and they help bring this biography to life. The ending is both hopeful and inspirational, and it is a perfect introduction for children to this iconic Civil Rights activist. The author and illustrator notes are a lovely addition, as they explain why the creators chose this subject matter as well as give insight into some of the artistic decisions, such as the symbolism of the stained glass windows that can be found throughout the book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Both the narrative and the artwork are wonderful, and this book will appeal both to those who are familiar with King’s work and those who haven’t yet heard of him. Although the book does deal with the hatred and violence King faced as well as his assassination, the book remains hopeful and uplifting.
  • Popularity: 4/5  The only factor that may detract from readers being excited about reading this book is the fact that it is non-fiction, which might deter some readers from selecting this title on their own. Those who do read it will be delighted with the story of such a brave, intelligent, and kind man and will be inspired by his life and actions.
  • Appeal factors: African American and Civil Rights history, biographies of influential people, cut-paper illustrations.


  1. For readers who want to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream illustrated by Kadir Nelson is a beautifully illustrated book that includes the original text of King’s speech. This would be a good fit for those who want to delve deeper into King’s civil rights activism and who enjoyed the MLK quotes in Martin’s Big Words.
  2. Rosa by Nikki Giovanni would be a perfect suggestion for readers who want to learn more about the Civil Rights movement. This is a biography of Rosa Parks and includes her courageous decision to refuse to give up her seat and the resulting bus boycott. Fans of Brian Collier’s cut-paper illustrations will enjoy this same artist’s treatment of the story of Rosa Parks.

Book talk ideas: Because one of the central themes of this book is the importance of words, it could be a good idea to start by asking the readers why they think words are important. Then, introduce Dr. King’s idea about “big words” and ask them to shout out some “big words” (like love, peace, hope, etc.). After this is done, explain how Dr. King used his words to change the United States as we know it, and to help fight for equal rights for everybody.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What is the power of “big words”? What are ways you can use “big words” to make a difference in the world?
  2. Why do you think Dr. King was killed? Why did his words and actions scare some people?
  3. Which Dr. King quote is your favorite? Why?

Reason for reading: This book would have been hard to overlook, considering the number of awards it won. It caught my attention at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t want to only read Caldecott titles; I have great respect for the award and love many of the books I’ve read from Caldecott lists, but I felt it was important to diversify my portfolio and read books that have won other awards as well. This title was a Coretta Scott King honor book as well as a Caldecott honor, so it showed up multiple times in my research.

Additional relevant information: Rappaport’s website features a section called Kids Connect, which shows how children in classrooms across the country have used her books as the basis for different class projects. One class created an “inspiring words” bulletin board with quotes from Rappaport’s biography subjects; another class made book trailers for some of her titles. A third class used Rappaport’s books as the basis for a unit about biographies, and each child wrote and illustrated an autobiography.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

  • Title: Bud, Not Buddy
  • Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Publisher: Delacorte
  • Year Published: 1999
  • ISBN: 0385323069
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner; Coretta Scott King Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Christopher Paul Curtis has written many books for young readers, including many award winning historical novels focusing on the African American experience in America. His website includes a brief biography, a list of the books he’s written, contact information, a list of news and events (including current projects to turn one of his novels, The Watsons Go to Birmingham into a TV movie as well as The Mighty Miss Malone‘s nomination for an NAACP image award), and a list of resources that includes teacher supplements, book guides, and author interviews. One of the interviews his website links to is one that Curtis gave to the ALA, in which he talks about the importance of the library to him. He says that he visited the Flint, Michigan library a lot when he was growing up, and he believes that libraries are unparalleled when it comes to librarian knowledge of books as well as the resources that libraries have to offer.

Reviews: Bud, Not Buddy received positive reviews from the major publications, including Booklist, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of them highlight the humor and optimism with which Curtis tells Bud’s story, and the adventurous plot that keeps the readers engrossed until the last page. School Library Journal does mention that while Buddy is a fully developed character, some of the others are “exaggerations: the good ones (the librarian and Pullman car porter who help him on his journey and the band members who embrace him) are totally open and supportive, while the villainous foster family finds particularly imaginative ways to torture their charge”, but SLJ says this is an easily forgivable fault due to the charming nature of the book as a whole.

Readers annotation: Bud may be an orphan with no money to his name, but he doesn’t let that stop him on his adventure to find his father.

Summary: Bud’s mother died when he was six years old, and since that time he’s spent his life in orphanages and in and out of various foster homes. He’s sent to live with the Amos family and does not even last one night before he’s beaten up and thrown into a shed to sleep, so he decides to run away. Initially he decides to hop on a train going west with a friend, but he misses the train. He then decides to walk to a nearby town where the man he is convinced is his father lives. He believes this man is his father because of some flyers his mother had with his face on them, which he keeps with all of his treasured possessions in his suitcase. During his walk, an older man sees him and gives him a ride and shows him kindness, and then he meets the man he believes is his father and his bandmates. His “dad” is rough and suspicious, but his bandmates take a liking to Bud and let him stay. Eventually, it is revealed that Bud is actually the man’s grandson, and his mother was his beloved daughter who ran away. This discovery cements for Bud that this is the place he belongs.

Evaluation: Bud’s voice is extraordinary. His observations about the world around him feel authentic and reflect what a ten year old boy who is alone in the world might be thinking, complete with endearing naivety. For example, when Bud tries to walk from Flint to find his father, the reader is filled with anxiety when Lefty tries to explain why it isn’t safe for a young black boy to be out in that particular town at night, but Bud clearly does not understand the danger he is in and is instead concerned that Lefty may be a vampire out to suck his blood. These observations simultaneously amuse the reader and break her heart. Bud is a fully developed character who the reader sympathizes with and whose concerns and hopes transcend the time period the book is set in and resonate with young readers today. The characters that Bud meets on his journey, while they may not shine as brightly as Bud himself, are entertaining and good foils for Bud’s antics and adventures. The plot is well-paced and keeps the readers invested in the outcome of Bud’s journey, and the backdrop of the Great Depression adds texture and historical depth to Bud’s story. Although this book does address the issue of race and racism, that is not the primary message or theme of the book; rather, this book examines the life and dreams of a young orphaned boy and his determination to find a place in the world where he belongs. The book mentions the Pullman porters and their poor treatment and difficulty unionizing as well as the danger of being black and in the wrong town after dark, but these ideas play in the background rather than at the forefront, which contrasts sharply with other books of this genre that make race the defining purpose of the novel. Children of all races and ages will find much to love in this charming book, and the happy ending is sure to warm even the toughest reader’s heart.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 This may be the best historical novel of this time period for a young age group. It brilliantly uses the historical context to provide details and conflict for the story, but this detail does not overwhelm or bog down the narrative. Bud’s voice is authentic and unique and will appeal to a variety of readers.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Some readers may not want to check out this book because it seems, upon first glance, to be “historical”, which young readers often conflate with “boring”. If a reader does give this book a chance, he will not be disappointed. Bud’s humor will keep the reader laughing and his positive attitude, intelligence, and bravery will give the reader much to identify with.
  • Appeal factors: African-American protagonist, historical setting, funny narrator, happy ending.


  1. Readers who enjoyed learning about the impact of the Great Depression might enjoy Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Esperanza is a Mexican girl whose family moves to California during the Depression, and like Bud, she has to adjust to difficult circumstances and injustice and use her intelligence and courage to make a better life for herself.
  2. Crow by Barbara Wright may be a good fit for readers who enjoyed reading about a young African American boy’s experience in historical America. This book is set in 1898 and follows Moses, a young black boy who struggles with quintessential childhood issues, such as growing apart from his best friend, as well as those unique to his time period, like dealing with racism in an era when older generations still remember being slaves.

Book talk ideas: The most endearing thing about this book is Bud’s voice, so let that do the talking. Explain that Bud is an orphan during the Great Depression and that he is on a quest to find his father and make a better life for himself. Say that he has a list of rules that he lives by, and list some of Bud’s rules. Ask the potential readers if they think these are good rules, and what rules they would add if they were making this list. Talk about how Bud deals with many difficult and scary situations, such as getting attacked by a swarm of hornets, having to sleep outside under a tree, and trying to jump on a moving train. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Although race isn’t at the forefront of this novel, name some instances in which the narrative reveals how people of different races are treated. What does this suggest about race and racism during the Depression?
  2. What do you think about all of Bud’s rules? Which one is your favorite? Which ones don’t you agree with?
  3. Did you like the ending? Why or why not? Pretend you had to write an epilogue to the book–what would happen to Bud and the other characters?

Reason for reading: This is another title that was recommended to me by a library co-worker and fellow MLIS student. She said that the book has a horrible cover but is actually wonderful, and that every time she recommends it to a kid they enjoy it. I had seen this book on a few lists of Newbery winners worth checking out, but the title and cover made the book seem boring, so I ignored it. After reading it, I looked online and saw that the paperback cover is significantly better, so hopefully more kids are drawn to read it now.

Additional relevant information: Christopher Paul Curtis released The Mighty Miss Malone in 2013. This book follows the life of Deza Malone, a girl that Bud met in a Hooverville in Flint.

Walter Dean Myers wrote an article in the New York Times about the lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature. It came out around the same time as I finished reading this novel, and I think the book and the article complement each other well, and that Curtis is an author who stands out for creating strong black protagonists and is one that librarians should recommend often and wholeheartedly.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson


  • Title: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
  • Author: M. T. Anderson
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2008
  • ISBN: 0763636797
  • List Price: $11.99 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 384
  • Age Range: 13+ yrs
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; National Book Award Winner; School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year; Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award Honorable Mention; complete list available here.

Author information: M. T. Anderson has written many books for young adults and children, notably the Octavian Nothing saga and the stand-alone novel, Feed. His website can be found here, but it is slow to load due to heavy visuals. On his site, readers can find a biography of the author, a list of his titles, links to lectures and interviews Anderson has given, a link to his blog, and a list of upcoming author events.

Reviews: Booklist and School Library Journal both gave this novel a starred review, citing its powerful themes of freedom and struggle as well as its use of historical facts to give the readers a clear picture of the time and place in which the book occurs. Both reviews mention that it can be challenging and take some time to acclimate to the novel’s storytelling format, but they did not think this detracted from the overall strength of the novel. These reviews, as well as excerpts from others, can be found on

Readers annotation: How far is Octavian Nothing willing to go to get his freedom?

Summary: To Octavian Nothing, it’s normal to weigh his feces every day, live in a home where people answer to numbers rather than names, and receive a classical education in the arts and sciences. But after his mother is almost raped, his life changes with the discovery that he’s a slave and an experiment to see if Africans and Caucasians are of the same species. This realization leads Octavian to question his identity and future. Under the harsh ownership of Mr. Sharpe, Octavian is tormented and forced to work until his owners host a pox party that changes his life again. His mother dies and he attempts escape, which takes him into the heart of the American Revolution.

Evaluation: Written in a colonial style and from multiple perspectives, this novel looks at America’s early and often ugly history through the eyes of a young slave. Although the style can be challenging, readers who are willing to make the effort will become absorbed in Octavian’s world, which Anderson expertly crafts by blending historical fiction and speculative fiction in an innovative way.  Readers can relate to Octavian, despite the differences in time period and circumstances, because fundamentally he is just a teenager who is trying to discover his place in the world and cope with the loss of his innocence. The book does leave many unanswered questions, which could potentially frustrate readers who do not want to invest in a sequel, but those who find Octavian’s story compelling will be eager to read the next book. Ultimately, Octavian forces readers to examine their preconceptions of the world and explore the themes of injustice, loyalty, and freedom.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is wonderfully executed and the use of a variety of formats, such as a first person narrative as well as letters from secondary characters gives the book an authenticity and truly places it in the per-Revolutionary War era. Anderson also does a masterful job of blending different genres in this novel to create something fresh and compelling.
  • Popularity: 2/5  The technical strength of this book–its historically accurate voice–is also the main deterrent for readers. Many teenagers will not be willing to put in the effort required to adapt to the language and will end up putting it down before the storyline has a chance to grab them.
  • Appeal factors: The character of Octavian Nothing is sympathetic and easy to relate to, even in spite of the differences between his character and modern readers. This book will also appeal to lovers of historical fiction, fans of Anderson’s other works, and readers looking for a book with strong African-American characters.


  1. The Monstrumologist by Richard Yancey could be a good fit for readers who enjoyed Octavian Nothing. Both books rely on period language to create a believable and immersive setting, and both books depict the darker side of scientific experimentation.
  2. Those who want to read more about the slavery experience during the Revolutionary War would enjoy Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. Although this book is intended for a slightly younger audience than Octavian Nothing, it examines similar themes of sacrifice, freedom, and courage.

Book talk ideas: “At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.” Imagine being the subject of a experiment meant to prove that you and people like you are inferior. Imagine having the only life you’ve ever known taken away from you, and imagine that in order to survive, you have to run. An option to make this book talk interactive would be to ask teens to define concepts such as “injustice” or “courage”.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Why do you think Anderson uses a variety of formats to tell this story? What is the impact of the pages that are almost entirely scratched out after the death of his mother?
  • Is evil black and white in this novel?
  • What struggles do you think Octavian would face today?

Reason for reading: When I was an undergraduate student, I took a class about children’s literature and read M.T. Anderson’s Feed. I really enjoyed that novel and have been meaning to read more of his work, and this class was the perfect opportunity. I also wanted to choose a novel that had a non-white protagonist, because I feel like many award-winners, intentionally or not, feature white characters and I wanted to have an award-winner under my belt so that I could hopefully recommend it to readers in the future.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first of two following the life of Octavian Nothing. The second, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, also won a Printz Honor.