Last weekend I checked out The Philadelphia African-American Children’s Book Fair. I was blown away by how many displayed titles were new to me: books about African history and African-American history, biographies, genre books featuring black protagonists where black protagonists have never before appeared, and even pulpy series like so many other pulpy series, all with African-American characters and subjects.
I suppose it should not have surprised me that I hadn’t seen many of these books before at bookstores or even my local library. Things never change that fast.
Pamela Tuck’s As Fast As Words Could Fly (ill. Eric Velasquez) grabbed me, first, with Velasquez’s lovely, oil-painted cover: a pair of hands on an old, Royal typewriter. The manual typewriter has been a strong presence in our home this snow-day heavy winter. We unearthed ours from the basement in a fit of cabin fever, and my kids responded immediately to the noisy, mechanical, tactile experience of typing letters onto a page; their first day with it they typed up a six page newspaper for our block – “The 23rd Street News”.
Tuck’s story is based on her father’s experience growing up in North Carolina in the mid 1960’s, at the moment of school desegregation. Despite discriminatory treatment at every turn in his formerly-all-white, now-desegregated high school, Mason Steele earns the honor of representing the school at a county-wide typing competition.
Steele chooses to type not on an electric typewriter, like his competition, but on a manual typewriter. He explains this choice, saying “Cause it reminds me of where I come from.”
When he wins the competition, breaking records, his victory is both a personal triumph and a triumph over an oppressive system. It feels righteous. Describing the moment after his victory is announced, Tuck continues, “No one cheered… Not a single person in the audience applauded. Mason received nothing.”
It is so painful that this child’s moment of victory is tainted by racism’s ugly persistence. But I appreciate the story’s historic and human honesty; we don’t often encounter picture books in which happy endings are seasoned with such a heavy dose of reality. Many, many Civil Rights victories share the sort of complexity that Tuck captures, I’m sure — which stands to reason: they are victories in a battle that no-one wants to have to fight in the first place. Such clear-eyed treatment honors Mason’s achievement moreso by not white-washing the realities of his world.
Lee & Low Books – publisher of As Fast as Words Could Fly – was new to me too. Kudos to them for running with this true and complex ending. It stands to reason that a publishing house with a strong commitment to multi-cultural books would appreciate such a thoughtful treatment.