Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose is the fourth book in my quest to read all five National Book Award nominees for Youth Literature. Unlike the prior three books, Claudette Colvin is a work of non-fiction.
Claudette Colvin was the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts during the 1950s and Civil Rights Movement. But unlike Rosa Parks, she was forgotten and overlooked for her major contribution to integration.
Hoose’s story is meant to share Colvin’s story and shed light into her role into the monumental and oft ignored Browder v. Gayle case that ruled integration the law in Montgomery and all of Alabama.
Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus as a teenager, and she didn’t go quietly. She was beaten and degraded as police officers dragged her off the bus for not giving up the seat upon the bus driver’s request (which, back then was de facto for blacks). She was sentenced for the crime, but her cause was taken up by Dr. King and Rosa Parks shortly thereafter. As students of American history, we have an idea of what happened when they became involved in the situation in Montgomery.
But Colvin faded from the spot light, even though it was her action that spurred movement from blacks and equal rights supporters of all colors and backgrounds. Why? She became pregnant and birthed a light-skinned baby. Scorned by white culture for being black and refusing to follow Jim Crow and equally scorned by her black community for having a child out of wedlock with what they assumed was a white father pushed her story to the periphery.
Hoose’s book was engaging and solid — I felt like the prose moved in a story-like fashion enough to keep audiences who may not otherwise have found a non-fiction book about a lesser-known history maker reading. Fortunately for Hoose and for readers, Colvin is still alive today and was able to provide insights into the story herself.
The book has segments of her interviews, along with a selection of photos, sidebars, and other graphics to tell the story. Additionally, Hoose fills in many of the holes between Colvin’s interviews to give the book shape and structure.
This, however, made me sad — I actually found Hoose’s additions the dullest and slowest portions of the book. I wanted to read more of Colvin’s own words and I feel like she got short changed for his prose. I’m a big fan of graphics, and I almost would have preferred more, as well. I consider myself a fairly well educated reader and I felt like having more visuals would have helped me better construct an understanding; I imagine for the age range this book is intended for that adding more graphics would be not only helpful but crucial to better capturing the essence of the Civil Rights struggle, particularly in Montgomery.
Although I believe this is a fantastic book, I do wonder how receptive audiences would be to this if it were not hand sold or used as part of a classroom collection/unit on the Civil Rights movement. I think this because she is (unfortunately!) a little known member of such an important era and she will be overlooked on the shelves in favor of King or Parks. That’s not to say she doesn’t belong, for sure. Additionally, I did find the section about her becoming pregnant a bit non-essential — the graphic details about sex here were tangential to the larger issues, and I think they will be a sticking point for use with younger readers.
I think this is a worthy NBA nominee, for sure, but I still hold my torch for Lips Touch. Fortunately for Claudette Colvin, the nomination will get more librarians, teachers, and book loves to read this story and talk up this lesser known but utterly important member of the Civil Rights movement and perhaps will bring a renewed interest in learning about the faces and stories behind it.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).