Many of you may know that my first dream was to be a teacher. What a happy moment that was when I walked into my first kindergarten class at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn, New York. Of course, we can have more than one dream – and I’m now living another one – the dream of writing for children. Another thing I love to do is turn the spotlight on new picture books that are launching – so, you can imagine how thrilled I am to sing Happy Book Birthday to a picture book about teachers!
THE TEACHERS MARCH! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History
Written by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
Illustrated by Charly Palmer
Published by Boyds Mills and Kane (2020)
And here is what everyone is saying about the book – THREE STARRED REVIEWS!!!!
“This stunningly powerful book by a team of award-winning creators should be part of every classroom library and teacher-preparation program. It’s the true story of the Reverend F. D. Reese, who taught high school science—but also freedom and equality. The narrative provides an unvarnished view of the deep levels of racism and violence that permeated society and aimed to thwart civil rights activism in the 1960s. The Wallaces pack their account with well-researched details so that readers get to know Reverend Reese and others as people as well as activists, and Palmer’s vibrant acrylic paintings intensify the urgency of the moment. A timely testament to the power of collectivism and the continued need for widespread civic engagement.” —Booklist, starred review
“This little-known march during the civil rights era is considered the catalyst for the other marches that shortly followed. This book does a masterful job of detailing the impetus for the teachers march. It is clearly communicated that the march was not spontaneous but carefully thought out—down to the teachers’ packing food and toothbrushes in case they were arrested. Palmer’s brushy paintings are full of color, detail, and emotion. The narrative is well paced and will work brilliantly as a read-aloud for patient, older preschoolers and early elementary–age children, and it should spark many a conversation about race and protest. An alarmingly relevant book that mirrors current events.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A vivid nonfiction narrative that illuminates the January 1965 Teachers’ March to Selma’s Dallas County Courthouse. By highlighting and interweaving the journeys of a few specific people—Rev. F.D. Reese…Dr. Martin Luther King Jr….and Too Sweet, a teacher and single mother who joined the march—the Wallaces eloquently portray the vitality of the group effort as well as the high risk involved in participating in the initial and subsequent Selma marches. Abstract, multilayerd paintings by Palmer ground readers in the action. This well-researched picture book proves riveting in its telling of how everyday heroes led a fight that resulted in the Voting Rights Act.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
And guess what? The talented team of Sandra and Rich Wallace have stopped by to chat with us! I’m over-the-moon excited! As you can see by the blog heading, they are going to be talking about publishing a nonfiction picture book during a pandemic. So buckle up and get ready to ride along with them!
ME: Hello Sandra and Rich! Thank you for coming by.
Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to THE TEACHERS MARCH! Happy Birthday to you!
SANDRA AND RICH: Happy birthday (but don’t blow out any candles yet!)
Today was supposed to be the book birthday for The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History, so we’re grateful to Vivian Kirkfield for welcoming us to celebrate on her blog.
The book spotlights a vital but little-known event of the Voting Rights Movement, when Reverend F.D. Reese and 104 other Black teachers left their classrooms in Selma, Alabama, and marched to the county courthouse to demand their right to vote. They risked their lives and their livelihoods, and helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also inspired hundreds of their students to stand up to injustice and become future change-makers.
We’ve been waiting patiently for this book, since the birthday was originally set for September 8, then September 22. Now it’s been pushed back another week to September 29. The printing and shipping of books have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
If you’re an author, by now you might be thinking “oh my gosh, I’m so glad I don’t have a book coming out during a pandemic, what would I do?” Well, the truth is, as kid-lit authors, and especially nonfiction authors, we can do a lot! And because we’ve learned so much about how to support our book during a pandemic, we’ve decided to celebrate this fleeting “book birthday” by sharing what we’ve learned and how it’s strengthened the ways we write true stories together.
Five things we’ve learned about publishing a nonfiction picture book during a pandemic
- A pandemic changes everything. It also shines a light on racial inequities and injustices. So did the teachers’ march.
The teachers knew they could be fired from their jobs, beaten by police, and jailed for standing up for their rights. This mirrors so much of what’s going on in the country today. The teachers’ march and the history behind it brings context to today’s racial injustices. The struggle is still real, and young people protesting today are certainly not the first to do so. The Teachers March! demonstrates how community leaders previously stood up to systemic racism and police brutality through nonviolent protests and created change.
2. A pandemic heightens the urgency of oral history.
When we first learned about the teachers’ march, we were deep into researching and writing another hidden civil rights story on location, in Selma, Alabama. That night, at the hotel, we decided that we absolutely had to interview the people involved in the teachers’ march ASAP (because who knows what next month will bring?) So, we returned home briefly, then flew back to Selma at our own expense—and without a book contract—to spend precious, unforgettable time with the teachers who made history and the young people they inspired. (Later, we learned how important this decision would be.) We visited Coach Lawrence Huggins in his home, where he shared with us his scrapbook of photos and articles about the march. We shared meals with Joyce Parrish O’Neal and learned how her mother, who taught 8th grade, chose to march as a single mom and what that moment—that day—meant to Joyce, who was fifteen. We listened to John Lewis and Reverend Reese preach at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and then interviewed Reverend Reese at the church. Sadly, Reverend Reese passed away shortly after we’d interviewed him for the third time, and we became the last two journalists to interview him about the teachers’ march. So responding to that sense of urgency proved essential.
Congressman Lewis has since died as well. He knew Reverend Reese and protested with him, but he couldn’t be present to watch the teachers march because he’d been jailed in Selma a few days before while protesting peacefully for voting rights.
3. Find new ways to make the story you are sharing be heard beyond ever-changing book birthdays.
Nonfiction requires research, and researching hidden histories means finding primary sources, conducting interviews, and hopefully, uncovering photos. Of course, when the story becomes a book, the powerful illustrations make the people who changed history real. The historical moment itself becomes an emotional, human connector. We had all this with The Teachers March! We took the stunning illustrations created by artist Charly Palmer, our recorded interviews with Reverend Reese and other participants, and–thanks to a very creative musician–produced an unforgettable book trailer that honors the teachers and underscores what they faced, what they did, and what still needs to change. It’s been viewed by educators more than 500 times in one month, well before the book is even out. See it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwzvFDKg8tc&t=31
4. Today’s teachers are heroes in different ways. Connect with them as much as you can.
E-learning is more important than ever because of social distancing. With educators under stress and duress as human beings and by teaching during a pandemic through in-person, virtual, and hybrid learning, we wanted to support them. We knew they’d be impacted by this book and become champions of this story and wouldn’t want it to continue to be lost to history. But they’re dealing with a lot right now. So, we asked, “What can we do for you?” They told us that the best digital tools they could utilize to bring the teachers’ courage and history-making actions to young readers were a book trailer and a downloadable educator’s guide that included interactive discussions and activities. We and our publisher jumped on those ideas. The educator’s guide is here: https://boydsmillsandkane.com/kanepress-activities/the-teachers-march-educator-guide/
5. Share your writing journey and your writing process.
Everyone seems to want to know how we work together to write true stories. It’s the number one question we’re asked at conferences, during school visits, by bloggers, by reporters, and by marriage counselors. (That last one is a joke, by the way. We happily just celebrated our 20th anniversary.)
We look for little-known people who have brought about seismic change. They’ve broken barriers and made the world better, but their stories have been lost to history. The teachers’ march on January 22, 1965, set monumental civil-rights changes in motion, but it was quickly overshadowed by Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery. In fact, many of the teachers and the hundreds of students they inspired marched on Bloody Sunday and in the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Reverend Reese is seen with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in many of the iconic photographs of the Montgomery march, but he’s usually not identified. We felt a responsibility to bring his story and the teachers’ story to young readers.
Our research process is to read everything that’s available about our subject to ground ourselves in the history. Then we visit the places where the story took place and we do in-person interviews whenever possible. Those first-hand accounts are essential for context, primary source information, and voice, and to humanize history. While the pandemic has delayed travel for research, it’s also heightened our awareness to conduct more interviews (via Zoom), and to work with archivists on access to information.
We sort out all of our research and those interviews, then we both choose which sections of a book to write. We constantly go over each other’s work to ensure continuity and clarity, and to maintain a consistent narrative voice.
We’ve both written a lot of fiction, so that’s helped us to focus on story arc and tension. We also both have journalism backgrounds, and we’ve found that our nonfiction “voices” are similar enough. (Our novelist voices are quite different, so we’d have to work much harder to write a seamless novel together. We haven’t tried that. We probably won’t!)
We’d like to thank Vivian Kirkfield for inviting us to share the story of The Teachers March! and the ways we’ve learned how to make certain the teachers’ activism won’t be lost to history.
ME: Oh my gosh! Sandra and Rich…THANK YOU!!!! We are all so very grateful, not only for this fabulous book that highlights an event that should always be remembered…but we also thank you for sharing so much of your writing process. I know this post is going to help all of the writers out there…and may even encourage some of them to form collaborations for their next projects.
Dear blog followers and friends – please make sure you review this book, tell friends about this book, ask your local library to purchase copies for their collection, and don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to WIN a copy of THE TEACHERS MARCH!
To find out more about this talented twosome:
Investigative journalists Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace are award-winning writers of nonfiction titles including Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights, which won the International Literacy Association’s Social Justice Award. Sandra’s picture-book biography Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery earned NCTE’s 2019 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction. The Wallaces recently founded The Daily Good, a nonprofit dedicated to literacy, food security, inclusion, and health in their city of Keene, NH. Visit them at SandraNeilWallace.com, RichWallaceBooks.com, and DailyGoodNH.org.
Sandra and Rich…I’m only about an hour away from Keene…currently in Merrimack, but moving at the end of the month to Bedford. When Covid restrictions are lifted, perhaps we’ll meet at a bookstore event or conference.
I hope everyone has a wonderful rest of the week…please pop in tomorrow when we’ll be singing Happy Book Birthday to Nick Solis’ new book: The Staring Contest…and then over the weekend for Perfect Picture Book Friday (Alayne Kay Christian’s The Weed That Woke Christmas) and Saturday when we welcome Joana Pastro, author of A Damsel NOT in Distress.