Friday, July 5, 2013

Blog Tour: As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. Tuck

Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. 32 p. Lee & Low Books, April 28, 2013. 9781600603488. (Finished copy provided by publisher)

Fourteen-year-old Mason Steele is just as dedicated to his father's civil rights group as he is to his homework. Mason is the unofficial secretary/ letter writer for his father and the group. He is able to parse his father's ramblings and turn them into beautifully handwritten business letters. His work for the group is so valued that they purchase a typewriter for Mason, who after typing out a thank you note, methodically teaches himself to type, even after working all day picking tobacco with his brothers.

The following fall, Mason started high school but three weeks into the term, he and his brothers learn from their father that a lawsuit was won and the schools in North Carolina now had to integrate. The three brothers would now attend the all-white high school closer to their home.  

     "P-P-Pa, you, you know them white folks ain't gonna like us going to their school not one bit," Willis Jr. stammered.
     "Like it or not, y'all's going," Pa replied. "Somebody's got to make a change."
    The boys stared at one another in disbelief. (~p. 10)

But they were at the bus stop the following Monday only to have the driver refuse to stop and pick them up. The same thing happened on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the bus stopped, but the angry driver yelled, "And get to the back!"

They arrived at the school and were met by the principal, who threw their schedules at them and refused to show them around. Despite being stuck in the back of classrooms and basically ignored, Mason did well in school. He applied for a job through the Neighborhood Youth Corps and received a job in the school library, where he was not welcomed warmly by a nasty librarian who barely took the time to teach him how to type a catalog card. 

Yet Mason persisted. 

I am sure that the Steele boys endured much more than just being ignored. They must have been made of steel indeed. This lovely, understated picture book is a work of fiction that is based on the "real-life experiences of my father, Moses Teel Jr., during the 1960s." (Author's Note)

"My father's fears of attending a formerly all-white school stemmed from a combination of the challenges of high school and the rejection he anticipated. Starting a new school meant more than leaving friends. It meant braking barriers and making history." (Author's Note)

Words fail me whenever I read about such bravery, especially when it is a child who stands up to evil. I have a particular interest in reading children's books about the Civil Rights Movement. There are many outstanding titles that have come out in the past few years, but those that focus on the youngest Civil Rights activists astound me. Where did they find the strength?

I knew that this beautiful debut would fit my middle school collection of picture books perfectly as soon as I finished the first reading. I grow more excited about the possibilities with each successive reading. I can imagine a middle school social studies teacher reading it aloud to introduce a Civil Rights unit. I can imagine a language arts teacher using it as a writing prompt, a class discussion or to introduce family stories. I can imagine an upper elementary teacher using it to encourage empathy. As Fast As Words Could Fly is a must-purchase. Pair it with other picture books depicting the Civil Rights Movement, such as We March by Shane Evans or with non-fiction titles such as Marching for Freedom: walk together children, and don't you grow weary by Elizabeth Partridge. 

There is great power in the simplicity of this story and that power is reinforced by the art of Eric Velasquez. The oil on watercolor paper paintings absolutely glow. In painting after painting, the three brothers are depicted standing tall and together as they confront the angry bus driver, endure being ignored by two white boys who were previously friendly, and finally face down the angry principal. The strong bond between them leaps from the pages. 

But then, it is the depiction of Mason's lonely journey that causes tears to threaten as he maintains a dignified presence each time he quietly stands for what is right. Oh, the anger I felt towards that librarian, the typing teacher and the school principal! There are lots of sideways glances aimed at Mason from all sides. While his triumph is undercut by the roaring silence and condescending compliments of his principal and typing teacher, the final portrait redirects the focus, the strength of Mason's family.

I also appreciated certain design aspects, namely the end-pages that feature old typewriter keyboard keys and the occasional use of a keyboard key as a capital letter. The choice of cover illustration will lure students who are most likely unfamiliar with a manual typewriter.

I was thrilled to learn that Pam was signing the book at ALA Annual and, rather than schlep my gifted copy of the book out there, I decided to buy a copy to give to the elementary school. But then I had Pam sign that copy for my students. The elementary school will get my review copy. (Teehee) Here's the photo that the rep took of us. I actually got the last copy of the book! Talk about nick of time!

One last injection of the personal into this very personal review: My husband is so supportive of all the reading and blogging that I do. I often find him nosing around the stacks of books that spring up around our house like mushrooms. He was hovering behind me this morning as I was trying to do justice to the book and asked to take a look. He took his time paging through and when he finished, quietly said, "Strangely moving for such a simply told story." Long pause, head bent. "I don't know whether to be angry or inspired," he said with a slight break in his voice. "Both, I think."

Visit Pamela M Tuck's website here.
Visit other stops on the blog tour here:
Shelf-employed for a beautiful interview.
Booktalking #kidlit for another lovely interview.
True Tales & a Cherry on Top.
Wrapped in Foil (tk)

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