April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

2014 Jane Addams Book Awards Highlight Human Rights

Jewell and students

‘Sugar’ author Jewell Parker Rhodes with students from Brooklyn’s Mary White Ovington School.

Human rights was the overarching theme in the books recognized at the 61st annual Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards, presented during a ceremony at in New York City on October 17. The awards honor the legacy of Addams (1860–1935), an advocate for women’s suffrage and world peace. The two winning books, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (HarperCollins, 2013), written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and Sugar (Little, Brown, 2013) by Jewell Parker Rhodes, along with several honor books, take a look at human rights through the lens of American history.

The two winning books feature protagonists who are strong young women, one real, and the other fictional. Clara Lemlich, young woman whose story is told in Brave Girl, the winner in the younger children’s category, was barely in her 20s in 1909, when she helped lead the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history. In her acceptance speech, Markel told the audience about meeting Lemlich’s family and learning that Lemlich’s aging grandmother had encouraged the workers in her nursing home to organize. Sweet said that she drew upon her own experience as a seamstress while creating the book’s illustrations.

Sugar, which won in the older children’s category, is a novel set in the American South during Reconstruction. The title character is an African American girl who is a freed slave who remained on her plantation and starts a forbidden, complicated friendship with the plantation owner’s son. When laborers from China are hired to work in the sugar fields, tensions erupt among every layer of plantation society.

A century separates the boys in two honor books, Kathryn Erskine’s Seeing Red (Scholastic, 2013) and Brotherhood (Viking, 2013) by Anne Westrick. In both books, characters have to contend with the Ku Klux Klan after becoming friends with African Americans. Speaking to the audience, Erskine emphasized the personal importance of the Jane Addams award and called herself a “closet Quaker.”

“Singing is a tool for fighting with your brain,” author Debbie Levy told the audience when accepting her honor award for her book We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Disney-Hyperion, 2013). The book reveals the history behind the song widely known as a civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” which had its roots in slavery. The book’s illustrator, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, captivated the audience by singing part of her acceptance speech.

Razia Jan

Razia Jan and Elizabeth Suneby.

Razia’s Ray of Hope (Kids Can Press, 2013), written by Elizabeth Suneby and illustrated by Suana Verelst, was an honor title in the Younger Children’s category. Its subject, Razia Jan, present at the ceremony, is the founder of a girl’s school outside of Kabul, Afghanistan and a 2012 CNN Top Ten Hero. A video screened during the event followed a student at the school as she took viewers on a tour of the various classes, and conveyed ongoing efforts to provide all girls in Afghanistan with an education.

Jane Barrer and Xenia Iwasykiw, librarians at the United Nations International School in Manhattan, brought their own fourth grade “peacemakers” to the event. These students serve as arbitrators in their school, working to solve disputes between fellow classmates. Razia’s Ray of Hope, was a candidate for their school’s Mock Caldecott award. Curricula to accompany the book is available for all grade levels.

Alla Umanskaya, the librarian at the Mary White Ovington School in Brooklyn, NY, also attended with students. Ovington, the school’s namesake, was a contemporary of Jane Addams and was also involved in the Settlement House movement to provide social services and education to the poor.

The Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards are given annually to the children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence.

Watch video of Michelle Mackel’s acceptance speech here.

Watch video of Melissa Sweet’s acceptance speech here.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.