Wednesday, September 07, 2022

The Side-by-Side Declaration of Independence and We Were the Fire

Miles, David. The Side-by-Side Declarationof Independence
September 7th 2021 by Bushel & Peck Books
Copy provided by the Publisher

Language changes. Anyone who has tried to read Little Women, a World War I diary, or even a letter from the 1950s can see that. Official language in 1776 poses even more of a challenge to today's young students who are proficient in TBH and LOL but are most likely unfamiliar with forthwiths and henceforths. The Declaration of Independence is not only filled with antiquated language and SAT vocabulary, but also requires an understanding of US history that is often not delivered until later in middle school. Given the importance of the document, David Miles does a great service to readers by parsing this historic document in an engaging way, and incorporating supporting elements of history into this examination. 

I appreciated that this started with a brief, six page overview of the events leading up to the penning of this document. This makes the book easily accessible even to fourth graders who may not have covered this period of history in school or read about it on their own. There's a nice facsimile of the Declaration that very few young people will be able to decipher, since they often don't know cursive! There's even a brief explanation of "How to use this book" that shows readers how to look at the original, see the "translation" on the facing page, and utilize some of the learning aids, like "learn the history", "look closer", and "think deeper". 

It is helpful that the original text pages have unfamiliar words in bold type, and a definition at the bottom, and it's worth buying this book for just the plain English version alone! Each two page spread incorporates Miles' drawings of key figures, events, and places interspersed with other illustrations, reproductions of maps, cartoons, and documents, and even the occasional modern photograph of pertinent items. These are arranged in a colorful scrapbook fashion, and there's even a drawn "tape" detail on some of the boxes. The font size of the Declaration is quite large, and the text is set off with plenty of white space, which keeps the pages from being too busy. 

There is a wide range of history topics included and discussed, from Native Americans to jury duty to the extensive German influence in the US; that was my big takeaway from this! I hadn't realized that there were as many as 100,000 Germans settled here by 1776. The book ends with brief biographies of some of the signers as well as the legacy of the Declaration and an extensive sources cited list.

I know that our 8th grade social studies curriculum covers the Revolutionary War up through the Civil War, and one of my favorite things all year is joining along with the teachers when they play the School House Rock Preamble to the Constitution every year. One of the teachers and I had quite the dance number that accompanied this, but Miles' vibrant dissection of the Declaration of Independence might give this jazzy version of the Preamble a run for its money when it comes to teaching students a very important part of US citizenship.

For my own reasons, I do wish that the cartoon style was just a little bit older, since this will get the most use by readers who are approaching 13 and are very picky when they think something looks "too young".

Moses, Sheila P. We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963
September 6th 2022 by Nancy Paulsen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Things are not easy for Rufus Jones' family in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. His mother is a cook at the local steel factory, but his father is killed in an accidental at the plant. His uncle, Sam, has been to college and has one of the few management positions held by Black people, so he and his wife, Ola, who teaches high school, are able to help a bit. The family lives in a small shack in Bull Hill with few amenities, which they rent from a local white man who does little to improve the condition of his tenants. We Paul, a friend of Sam's, starts paying attention to Rufus' mother, Rufus isn't too happy, although Paul is quietly adamant about courting the mother, bringing food, always showing up, and waiting patiently on the porch until he is finally asked in. Rufus and his younger sister Georgia are a little apprehensive, since they have memories of their father, but soon see that having Paul in their life is a good thing. Rufus is aware of all of the racial tension in the South around this time, since he reads the newspapers his uncle brings him, and also Jet magazines that he gets from his teachers, and the family is torn between preserving their own safety and helping to further Civil Rights in their area. Paul decides that it would be a good step to move out of their neighborhood, but they don't have enough money to move to Sam's neighborhood, which is called "Dynamite Hill" because of the tensions caused as Black residents move in. They instead find a place in Ivy Town that is owned by the woman who owns the mill, Miss Boone.They are somewhat apprehensive, because she didn't step in to help with the insurance claim when his father died and the family has yet to recieve his settlement, but go to visit her anyway. A native of Boston, Miss Boone invites the family to enter through the front door of her house, and offers them a better home than they had their eye on, charging them $40 plus some sewing. The house has indoor plumbing and bedrooms for everyone. Some of the white residents are not happy, and a cross is burned in their yard, but it's still a step up from Bull Hill. When Civil Rights activism steps up in the summer of 1963, Rufus is glad to be involved, even if Paul and his mother want him to stay home and be safe. The adults are afraid to take place in the marches, although there are also protests like a boycott of local businesses, so the high school students start planning a children's march. Rufus leaves school to attend, and eventually is arrested and taken to the fair grounds, since the jail is full. Despite the dangers, Rufus is glad to see that the children are able to keep the Civil Rights struggle going forward and bring national attention the their cause. 
Strengths: Rufus' story shows modern readers not only what the Civil Rights movement looked like, but also why it was so critically important. The details of Rufus' ordinary life, from the place he lived to the school he attends, will be unknown to many young readers who perhaps haven't been taught about this history in school. (In my state, the only US history taught before 8th grade tends to end at the Civil War.) This is set a few years before Jackson's The Lucky Ones, and shows the dire situations faced by Blacks in the South, but also showcases the resilience of Rufus' family and the successes they are able to acchieve despite the hostile environment. I appreciated that Miss Boone was shown in a favorable light, even though there probably weren't as many helpful white people at the time as there should have been. It's the perfect length, at 176 pages, and is written in a particularly clear yet fast paced way. The inclusion of historical figures and events is seamlessly done, and the story was as enjoyable to read as it was educational. 
Weaknesses: Our 8th grade is slowly transitioning from a major Holocaust unit (20 years ago, the 8th grade curriculum included World War II, and the Holocause unit in language arts was a vestige of this) to a Civil Rights one, and while the information about the children's march is excellent, the book seems a bit young for 8th grade. It is perfect for elementary schools, though, and will work well for individual reading at the middle school level. 
What I really think: Pair this with Levinson's We've Got a Job for a fuller picture of the children's involvement, or with the aforementioned The Lucky Ones to compare and contrast the progress that the Civil Rights movement made in the 1960s. For so long, books about the South in the 1960s focused on white female main characters (think The Help), so it is great to finally see a different perspective of this important historical era. 
 Ms. Yingling

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