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December 19, 2014

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Juneteenth: The First Day of Freedom

alldifferentnow Juneteenth: The First Day of Freedom Angela Johnson and E. B. Lewis’s beautiful and evocative All Different Now (S & S, 2014; Gr 3 Up) commemorates the first Juneteenth (June 19, 1865), when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the long-delayed news of the abolition of slavery (President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863).

Johnson’s lyrical first-person text is narrated by a young girl who awakens on a June morning scented with honeysuckle—a morning like any other—and walks to the cotton fields with her family to begin a day of backbreaking labor. Meanwhile, word of freedom spreads from port, to town, to countryside, to field. Suddenly, time stands still: Aunt Laura holds her baby tightly and lifts her voice in song; elderly Mr. Jake cries quietly; a group of people bow their heads in prayer; and Mama, her face churning with emotion, looks “beyond,” as “everything/[falls] to a/hush.” Later on, celebrations include a family picnic at the beach and a joyous evening spent with others eating, laughing, and telling stories “as free people.” And though the next morning dawns just like yesterday, the youngster knows that she awakens to a time that will be “all/different/now.”

The text and artwork are understated yet as redolent with emotion as the scent of honeysuckle. Johnson utilizes repetition, rhythm, and subtle diminuendos and crescendos of mood to imbue the simple language with soul-searing power. Filled with details of time and place, Lewis’s watercolors realistically depict the settings and the characters—slave quarters with tattered curtains and worn wood-planked walls, an expansive cotton-speckled field stretched beneath a sweltering sky, a monochromatic beach punctuated by dark green palm trees. With hands clutched together in surprise or supplication, arms raised jubilantly toward heaven, eyes gazing off in quiet contemplation, or faces lifted to welcome a new day, each individual’s posture and facial expressions convey an eloquent depth of feeling. Incorporating faded grays and greens, the muted color range keeps the focus on the vibrant emotional palette, and contrasts of shadow and light illuminate nuances. The book is at once intimate and profound, poignantly relating the specifics of one child’s life and perspective in a manner that allows readers to take away truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.

jo21 Juneteenth: The First Day of Freedom

Interior spread from Angela Johnson’s ‘All Different Now’ (S&S, 2014). Illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Thoughtful back matter presents additional information (important dates, key terms, online resources), a glimpse at Juneteenth and its evolution, and intriguing notes from the author and illustrator. Johnson recalls childhood visits to her grandmother’s Alabama home, where she would gaze at a sepia photograph of her great-grandparents, born into slavery. “They were a mystery, but tangible proof to my young eyes that all I’d learned about slavery in books was a reality in my own family…I’d love to know how [they] celebrated when told that they were free. But that tale has been lost to time, so I can only hope that this one will do.”

Lewis muses about the difficulty of determining “what it would have been like to be a slave receiving the news of emancipation,” concluding: “It’s simply impossible for a contemporary American, of any color, to put himself squarely in the shoes of a nineteenth-century slave.” Still, Johnson’s text spoke to him, and Lewis recounts a creative process that included researching old photographs and books as well as taking reference photos for the story’s scenes (a phone call to a South Carolina school resulted in enthusiastic community members “all dressed in clothing they had researched and provided themselves”). Ultimately, Lewis discovered the necessity to illustrate “not just jubilation and celebration, but expressions of repose, disconnect, surprise, and contemplation.”

With its reserved and respectful telling, All Different Now offers opportunity for students to identify, interpret, and discuss an array of themes and issues. This fictional story can be utilized in conjunction with information resources to enhance studies of American history, slavery, African American culture, and race relations in the United States. Youngsters can also explore the book’s craft and structure by examining the author’s use of language, identifying point of view, and analyzing how the illustrations contribute to the text’s meaning and tone. Students can identify and contemplate the emotions expressed in both text and artwork to build understanding and empathy.

The endnotes provide insights into the creative process, another interesting topic for perusal, and may also inspire kids to explore significant moments in their own family’s history. Perhaps the most powerful discussion point is raised by Lewis, who states his hope that the “book will act as a beacon that shines its light on a dark corner of our country’s history,” allowing for “deeper healing” and better assuring a “future where all people wholeheartedly embrace and happily celebrate our differences.”

jo Juneteenth: The First Day of Freedom

Interior spread from Angela Johnson’s ‘All Different Now’ (S&S, 2014). Illus. by E. B. Lewis

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RL 4.2. Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
RL 5.6. Describe how a narrator’s…point of view influences how events are described.
RL 5.7. Analyze how visual…elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.
L 5.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

This article was featured in School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered every month for free.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who lives in southern Colorado. She spends most of her free time meeting the needs of the three voracious readers in her household.

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