On November 3, 2016 The New York Times announced its Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2016. Of the ten chosen titles one eloquently presents the young life of a practicing congressman in the United States House of Representatives. Preaching To The Chickens: The Story of young John Lewis (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, October 11, 2016) written by Jabari Asim with illustrations by E. B. Lewis will lift your spirits and make your soul sing.
Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole world came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks.
John concurred with Mother Nature; spring was just right for new life. His family relied on their strong faith in God and in working hard on their farm. And make no mistake; the work was hard all day long, all year long. His father turned the earth with a mule-drawn plow. His mother washed their clothes and cooked food she grew over open fires outside.
John's main responsibility was to care for their sixty or so chickens. When he feed them each morning they clucked a response. John believed they were thanking him. They gathered around him like chicks around a mother hen. He in turn would softly chat with them about God's messages to his children, all living things.
Other than his time with the chickens, John truly relished Sundays and time spent at church. When the words and music of hymns surrounded him, the boy felt wrapped in pure contentment. The messages he heard there so moved him, he started preaching to the members of his feathered flock. Each one was an important individual to him.
When a traveling trader wanted one of the chickens under John's care, he offered alternative solutions which his parents accepted. More than once he saved his chickens' lives with the Gospel as his guide. John believed practice made perfect. He never stopped then and he has not stopped now.
On June 22, 2016 certain members of Congress refused to leave the House floor until an important vote was taken on gun control legislation. One of those members was John Lewis. Author Jabari Asim has given readers relevant insights into the early life of this very public figure who has been a champion for civil rights. It's important he incorporates dialogue within the narrative making our reading experience more intimate. It's meaningful he includes John naming each chicken thus giving value to their lives. We can't help but feel a kinship to this man who is a beacon for those who need a light the most. We can't help but understand how a higher principle paves his path. Here is a passage from this title.
When the hen called Big Belle fell into the well and got stuck, John was determined to save her. He filled a basket with bread crumbs, and when he lowered it down, she climbed in and was pulled to safety.
"God makes miracles every day," John preached.
Last week when I read this book aloud to a classroom of third grade students you could have heard a pin drop when they first saw the matching dust jacket and book case, rendered, as are all the illustrations, in watercolor and gouache by E. B. Lewis. Look carefully at the realistic depiction of the boy and his chickens and the flow of the brush strokes. This image is fully animated. To the left, on the back, a group of chickens, shadows playing along with ground, by the light and their movement, are accompanied by opening text from the book.
A deep dark forest green covers the opening and closing endpapers. Beneath the text on the title page in pools of shadow several hens and chicks move and stand frozen in time or perhaps listening to a young preacher. Across the verso and dedication pages is the landscape of the farm with the rows of cotton, young and green, the home and other buildings.
All of the illustrations span two pages with the exception of two. Their beauty strikes all your sensory chords; you can feel the sun shining on the boy's face, you can hear the gently clucking of the chickens and peeping of the chicks, you understand the muscle aches, tiredness and determination of the boy's parents, and you can see those chickens gathering to hear John's words. The tenderness growing in this boy for these chickens is evident in his facial expressions. You know he will become a man who listens to everyone and who listens to him. You know he will become a man who has deep affection for those who need him to step forward on their behalf.
One of my favorite illustrations is of John seated, cross-legged, on the ground outside the chicken coop. We are close to him in this image. The chickens are gathered around him. He is cradling one in his arms. A slight smile plays around his mouth. (I know this feeling when you believe you are one with an animal or animals in your life. It is an unforgettable sensation, a gift.)
Preaching To The Chickens: The story of young John Lewis written by Jabari Asim with illustrations by E. B. Lewis is a remarkable portrait in words showcased with luminous illustrations. This is reminder of how our children can grow to be the finest our country has to offer us and the world. It is a tribute to John Lewis and to all those who endeavor to raise themselves up in service to others. Please take a moment to read the Author's Note on the final page.
To learn more about Jabari Asim and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website. You can learn more about E. B. Lewis and his work by going to his website through the link attached to his name. Julie Danielson, author, reviewer and blogger, highlights some of E. B. Lewis's images from this title at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast including one of my favorites.
Be sure to visit educator Alyson Beecher's blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, to see other titles selected by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.