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.

Read-alikes: 

  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.”

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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.

Read-alikes: 

  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.