November 17, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

Shane W. Evans | An Artist (and Author) to Study

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

Introducing early elementary students to African American history can pose a challenge to educators. It is a past full of pain, suffering, and cruel injustice—not the usual fare for the youngest students. Yet, Shane W. Evans has been able to present powerful episodes in our nation’s history through simple language and bold, dramatic illustrations. He has also collaborated with a number of authors in illustrating biographies and other books on our history. Introduce this important author/illustrator to your students and begin your study of his work with the titles and activities suggested below.

unergroundIn Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom (Roaring Brook Press, 2011), winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Evans explains the Underground Railroad to the youngest readers. “This book is about…simple actions and feelings like fear, running, crawling, making friends, etc.; this is the essence and spirit of the underground.” In less than 50 words, children experience one family’s dramatic journey to freedom and the birth of their first child born on free soil.

Midnight blues harboring the travelers’ watchful, fearful eyes give way to sunny yellows as their arduous journey ends. Students can see a video of the account on the author’s website (shaneevans.com/underground, click “book in motion”) with dramatic sound effects and asides—“Our baby’s gonna be free!” Afterwards, they can dramatize the book; children can mime the actions while a teacher or older student(s) recite the text.

we marchThough more than 100 years separate the era of the Underground Railroad from the 1963 March on Washington, Evans rightfully views We March (Roaring Brook Press, 2012) and Underground as a pair. Again, utilizing a spare text and bold, full-spread images, Evans follows a family as they rise early, go to their church to pray and paint messages of freedom on placards before they board the buses to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. When they arrive, “We walk together.”

Evans depicts the young and old, the black and white, folks on foot and in wheelchairs, side by side, marching for civil rights. “We are hot and tired, but we are filled with hope./We lean on each other/as we march to justice,/to freedom,/to our dreams.” These few lines are spread over 10 pages in which the family huddles in a crowd of thousands; the boy sits on his father’s shoulders, his arm outstretched, just as Dr. King’s arm reaches back, head surrounded by the yellow halo of the sun. In the author’s note, Evans tells a bit more about the march and what it accomplished, concluding, “I have always been inspired by the idea of people coming together, joining hands in prayer, lifting their voices in song, and marching toward freedom.”

Teach students the words to several “freedom songs” and have a class/school sing-along. Organize a food or clothing drive or other community event; older students can volunteer in a soup kitchen or learn about the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 and how it is both enforced and ignored in our country today.

Evans imageIn addition to several books that he has created on his own, Evans has also collaborated on many projects with other authors. Highlighted here are two titles for middle grades that he illustrated, both written by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

Smith’s 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World (Roaring Brook Press, 2015) is an ambitious celebration of black achievement specifically written for Black History Month. As Smith explains in his preface, “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Black History Month. I love that black culture is shared and studied for a whole month, but as a student of color, I hated the idea of ignoring it the other eleven months.”

That said, this title features 28 heroes or events in chronological order, beginning with the shooting of Crispus Attucks in 1770, which sparked the American Revolution, and ending with the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as our first black president. In between are landmark court decisions such as Dred Scott v Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. the Board of Education; firsts including the first African American to play major league baseball, female track athlete to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, black woman to run for President, black astronauts, as well as the first black female billionaire. Smith’s poems and eulogies (for Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker, and Malcolm X), accompanied by short paragraphs of explanation, inspire a lesson a day each February. Every spread is meaty and powerful enough to inform and excite youngsters to learn more. Evans’s portraits and illustrations have never been more bold, varied, and evocative. Day 29 (the leap year) features an array of people of all ages and colors facing a bright yellow sun; the final poem asks readers, “What will today bring,/what will today be,/will today be the day/you make history?”

black jackOne often-overlooked history maker is the subject of Smith and Evans’s Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson (Roaring Book Press, 2010). “He has been an understated figure in our history and it is time to celebrate someone who was forward thinking and a true CHAMPION!” (TeachingBooks.net in-depth written interview with Smith and Barbara Reid, Toronto, 2012) Born Arthur John Johnson in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, “L’il Artha” was the son of formerly enslaved parents. Bullied as a child, as he grew, his mother always told him, “Jack, Fight Back!” Though he worked as a dockworker, shop sweeper, baker, porter and more, he found success in the boxing ring. “Fast hands, a clever head,/reflexes like a cat,/and a big uppercut/sent many to the mat.” At the time, Jim Jeffries, the world heavyweight champ, refused to fight a black man. Though Johnson challenged him again and again, “ ‘I will never fight a Negro,’ ” swore the champ. Finally, on July 4, 1910, after Johnson had won the title from Tommy Burns, Jeffries came out of retirement to reclaim it. “The forty-five round bout only lasted fifteen, when Jack made history with his breathtaking swing.” Evans’s full-spread art uses a palette of mustard yellow, smoky blue, and dark brown. His final triumph features Evans’s signature halo around “Black Jack,”—“a brave, STRONG, FIGHTIN’ man.”

Strength, bravery, and determination were characteristics of men like Jack Johnson and others, who helped make this country a place where, on the 28th day, we inaugurated the first black president. Hopefully, these books will inspire similar traits in our children to continue the fight for freedom and equality here at home and around the world.

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Share
A Day-Long Celebration of Fandom-Beloved Stories and Characters
Join Library Journal and School Library Journal for our inaugural LibraryCon Live! We’re excited to offer this day-long virtual festival for book nerds, librarians, and fans of graphic novels, sci-fi, and fantasy. Network online with other fans and explore our virtual exhibit hall where you’ll hear directly from publishers about their newest books and engage in live chats with featured authors. You’ll also learn from librarians and industry insiders on how to plan and host your own Comic Con-style event.

Comments

  1. Another Shane Evans book that would fit with a unit is the picture book biography ART FROM HER HEART: FOLK ARTIST CLEMENTINE HUNTER by Kathy Whitehead. When her artwork was exhibited at a Louisiana college in 1955, Clementine Hunter wasn’t allowed to attend but was let in the back door on a Sunday when the gallery was closed. It’s a wonderful story of how creativity and spirit just have to shine.