In "Let Freedom Sing," Vanessa Newton has created a delightful picture book to teach younger students about the Civil Rights movement.  She weaves song, images, and historical events together to bring to life the struggle and the joy of making the United States a better, more equal country.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Newton on January 11, 2010, about this book and her process of creating it.  She is a self-taught artist who, as an adult, was diagnosed with dyslexia.  She told stories of drawing on anything and everything as a child--including the side of a stove with crayons. Although she studied to be a fashion illustrator, it wasn't until a friend who happened to work for Scholastic books encouraged her to work as an illustrator that she began to make her living as an artist.

Newton uses many different types of materials as an artist--the computer, collage, water colors, pen and ink, gouache.  If one looks closely at the illustrations of this book, one can see the collage elements serving as backgrounds for the paintings in the foreground.  Her illustrations here are reminiscent of those of Ezra Jack Keats--the 1960s feel seems perfectly suited to the subject matter of the book.  Newton chose to focus her story around the people who were monumental in the Civil Rights movement, so that children today can begin to understand the struggle that was involved--and in some cases is still involved--in bringing about greater equality.  Because she herself comes from a diverse racial and ethnic background, she chose to depict people of all backgrounds in her book, since racism and discrimination affect us all.

The book uses the song "This Little Light of Mine" as a framework to depict the episodes of activism. She tells stories of boycotts, sit-ins, and integration to show the historical background.  She shows Dr. Martin Luther King speaking, President Lyndon Johnson signing laws, and President Obama being sworn in, all as part of a natural progression of how  these activists for Civil Rights made possible both better laws and the election of an African-American President.  As Newton told me in her interview, "If Rosa Parks hadn't sat down, Barack Obama wouldn't have been able to stand up."

The school in which I work used this book as a text study on Martin Luther King Day with Kindergarteners, First Graders, and Second Graders.  Students were able to connect the depictions to what they had learned in their classrooms about the Civil Rights movement.  They sang the song and interpreted the pictures.  For example, they were able to see how Newton indicated segregation, not with words, but with her illustrations showing children using "white only" or "colored" drinking fountains.  All in all, they were encouraged, in the words of the book, to figure out how to "let their light shine."

I highly recommend this book.  I also want to thank Vanessa Newton for her warm and friendly conversation with me.  I was only looking for a way to enrich our plans to use the book in our curriculum, and she went far and above what I expected in granting me such a lovely interview.