February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Shana Corey and R. Gregory Christie on JFK’s “Big Speech”

If you’re wondering why you have seen a number of new books on John Fitzgerald Kennedy lately, May 29, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the 35th president. In Shana Corey’s A Time To Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech (NorthSouth, Apr. 2017; Gr 3-6), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, the author focuses on the president’s role in the civil rights movement, offering a fascinating portrait of a man who had written a book about courage but hesitated when it came to taking a “bold” stand on civil rights. Both author and illustrator discuss their way into this story, which highlights the moments leading up to and the impact of President Kennedy’s June 1963 address to the nation.

Choosing to examine President Kennedy’s impact on the civil rights movement brilliantly captures so much about the character of the man. Can you talk about that decision?

Shana Corey, author: Absolutely. I grew up hearing stories about John F. Kennedy from my parents. My dad was a 14-year-old living in Miami Beach during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so that affected his perception of Kennedy, and my mom had family ties to Boston—so Kennedy has always felt personal to me. I wanted to make sure that this book wouldn’t be an echo of the wonderful picture book biographies already out there on the man, and hoped it might bring something new to the discussion. And I very much wanted to find a point of connection to make it a window into the past and relevant for us today.

I’ve always been very interested in the civil rights movement and thought it was somewhat strange that, for the most part, my knowledge of Kennedy and my knowledge of the movement were compartmentalized. Kennedy was the president in the midst of the civil rights era, and yet I didn’t know much about his involvement in it (in comparison to what he was doing in the Space Race or the Cold War, for instance). It was as if they were two completely distinct threads of history that just barely intersected, whereas I think of history more as a weaving—different threads that overlap, interact, and affect the whole.

I also think civil rights are at the heart of who we are and where we’re still struggling as a country, so it felt important to me to know more about what Kennedy was doing during that time. As I researched, I got excited to really look at his June 11, 1963, Civil Rights Address and what led up to it. Partly because it was such a game-changing speech for an American president at that time: “This nation…will not be fully free until all its citizens are free…. It is a time to act…. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence.”

Kennedy held not just leaders, but all listeners, all Americans, accountable. I found that very powerful, as I do Greg Christie’s images of kids watching that speech on television, which makes me think about what it might have meant then and what it means for children now, for all Americans really, to hear leaders stand up for what is right.

It was also moving that Kennedy finally took that stand and spoke those words, not necessarily because of an innate greatness in him—but because of the greatness in kids, teenagers, and the people on the ground, fighting for civil rights. He was the leader of the free world—but he didn’t always drive history. He was inspired by the many brave activist children who were leading the resistance and who changed and made history.

In the text and in your author’s note, you mention that here was a man who wrote  Profiles in Courage, yet hesitated to take an unequivocal stand on civil rights issues before the voting public. Why did he hesitate?

Why do any of us hesitate to do something we know is right? Fear? Worry about (especially if we’re in a privileged group) risking something personally?

Kennedy did do some work on civil rights before the June 1963 speech and the Civil Rights Legislation he submitted to Congress right after (that legislation eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964). He integrated the Coast Guard; he created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment. But many of his reforms were more symbolic—motivated more by protecting America’s image and the image of democracy than by creating substantial change. When it came to pushing for real change in a way that would get serious pushback, though, he was worried about losing the support of Congress, which was controlled by Southern white conservatives.

It was fascinating that Kennedy had literally written a book on courage—about taking a stand not only when you have popular support but even when you don’t. In a 1960 speech he actually said, “It is not enough merely to represent prevailing sentiment,” and yet even with that worldview and awareness, it was still something he struggled with when he faced the risk of losing support himself.

I didn’t realize Dr. King suggested Kennedy pen a second “Emancipation Proclamation,” making segregation illegal. Did the president ever seriously consider the option?

I don’t know how seriously Kennedy considered it, but Dr. King did very seriously ask him to issue one as part of the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. He actually went one further than asking and drafted it. But Kennedy was again afraid of the pushback he would receive from Southern Democrats and worried it would jeopardize the rest of his agenda. Instead, the White House held a Celebration of the Centennial on Lincoln’s birthday and invited 800 black leaders, politicians, and entertainers. Martin Luther King Jr. chose not to attend and instead continued to push Kennedy to take real action, which ultimately resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Along with the kids taking action, Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Jackie Robinson’s correspondence with Kennedy is really what inspired this book (you can see some of their telegrams to Kennedy on my website. They are pretty amazing to read!).

Image from A Time To Act (NorthSouth)
© 2017 by R. Gregory Christie.

Kennedy ultimately did make a “bold” move by stating that segregation was not just politically and legally unacceptable but also morally wrong. Your story is simply told in so many ways but contains all the threads readers will need to understand the man and the impact his speech had as well as the questions history should make us as readers ask. When writing for kids, what are you thinking about?

Where and how kids might connect with the story and what might make it worth their time…points of connection that make the person or people I’m writing about like a living breathing person just like them. I want readers to know that they’re just as much part of history and just as capable of making change as the people I write about, that their voices matter. JFK’s teacher said he was disorderly? Eleanor Roosevelt scolded him in a telegram? He was uncertain? To me, those are things that we can relate to, and almost more interesting than the heroic topline of a person’s life. So I focus on those moments, and on the kids that touch the story—which is why we see the Children’s March and the Greensboro Four and a look at Ruby Bridges here—I want to know (and show) what children were doing.

I also want to know the story behind the story. JFK made this speech and sent the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 to Congress—but what did it take to get him there? And the answer is—it took a lot. He wasn’t acting alone; he was prodded to act by the people on the ground.


Given the number of projects you’re offered, what spoke to you about this one?

R. Gregory Christie, illustrator: I really was drawn to Shana Corey’s masterful balance of the subject matter. A Time To Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech could have simply been another Kennedy biography, but it also addresses the challenges America was facing, divided as a nation during the 1960s. Additionally, it touches on key historical moments in the civil rights movement. It’s three major historical subjects skillfully packaged as one book. The book is special to me because it takes a wealthy and renowned family such as the Kennedys alongside that of poor Southern children demanding legislated social change; the cover and title of the book say it all.

When illustrating a book such as A Time To Act, which feature events that occurred before you were born, do you spend much time immersing yourself in the story, characters, and/or era first, or do you dive right in?

I need time to immerse myself within the times that I’m illustrating, and the fine folks at NorthSouth Books gave me the room to make this book as visually strong as possible. I took time watching the Rat Pack, Kennedy’s choice in suits. [I looked at] photographs of Kennedy in leisure wear, Jackie’s gloves, telephones of the era, the weight of people during their different life stages, even hand gestures from stock films.

Your art is both stylized and impressionistic, and it’s uncanny how you manage to capture the faces and expression of these figures whose photos we have seen time and again. What is it that you look for when creating your image of a person?

Shadows, the light and dark tones created when a light source illuminates the face. It’s amazing to me how accurate, blocked-in shadows can create a likeness. My stylized element comes through when I no longer look at the reference and just paint with an improvisational sensibility. When I put my reference to rest, it helps to make the painting a lot more stylistic, but these fantastical elements are counterbalanced by their realistic origins.

I love how each individual face features nearly every imaginable skin tone, from shades of blacks and browns to pinks and whites. Here it almost seems symbolic.

When I look at colors, I see many hues, meaning my skin isn’t just brown. It’s yellow mixed with orange, then toned down with blue. Depending on the light, I will add a hint of red or even white. The blue would be ultramarine rather than cobalt; the red, Alizarin crimson rather than cadmium. As with anything else, years of practice give you the knowledge and bravery to take things somewhere efficient and, at times, bizarre. But all in all, I think that most painters don’t just see the night as black or the sky as blue—there is a full spectrum of color waiting to be manifested through tubes of pigment and binder.

Many of the illustrations in this book are particularly poignant, especially those of the children on marches, which we learn was one of the events that ultimately propelled President Kennedy to make his historic statement.

I opened up a bookstore, art school, and gallery in a mall about five years ago; it’s an alternative space named GAS-ART GIFTS. Sometimes little kids will not let their mothers leave the mall unless they come by to say hello to me. Other times children come in expecting me to remember them no matter how minuscule or grand the interaction was between us…. So when I see that photo of Ruby Bridges, with her little suitcase, dressed up for a new school day while she’s being escorted into a school by U.S. Marshals, I see it through the eyes of a teacher. That photo always makes me sad and really causes me wonder about humanity.

I imagine each book presents specific challenges, but are there aspects of book illustration that you find yourself grappling with or thinking about as an artist more often than others?

In this book, I had to find a way to state the historical facts, maintain a continuity with the rest of the book, and, in a way, [separate from what] I feel when I see that photograph [of Ruby Bridges and the U.S. Marshals]; the painting that the readers see in the book is the end result.

More specifically, I used the body language of each person as a way to convey fragility, diligence, and innocence. There’s the juxtaposition of Ruby’s girlish bows and bobby socks against the badges and fedoras. I also thought about the tones and values as the painting came to fruition. Ironically, the lightest area of the painting is Ruby, a little “black” girl. The darkest and most foreboding area of the image is inside of the school building, which idealistically is a place of enlightenment. I consider it to be a beautifully poignant, matter-of-fact work of art derived from an iconic photograph; in retrospect it wasn’t an easy image to paint emotionally.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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