May 24, 2013

Memorial Day: Eternal Flames

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On Memorial Day we commemorate and honor those who served our country to assure the continuation of our independence and freedoms. It is indisputable (and honorable) that we should do so.

That we should do so only on this occasion is indeed a travesty. Our year-round acknowledgement of the service and sacrifice of others should extend far beyond the sincerely polite "Thank you for your service" offered to those in uniform when we encounter them, most often in an airport terminal.

A year ago at this time Maurice Sendak had recently died and my remarks about remembering and honoring those who contribute to society's greater good, to our advancement and improvement as people, focused on his remarkable contributions. In that post I urged the use of picture books throughout the year to share history with new generations, to explore and discuss the values and principles that lead us into wars and require vigilant protection.

As I write this today, on Memorial Day weekend, I can't help but focus on a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, leading to the passage of the historic Civil Rights legislation just one year later. Five young girls had completed their Sunday school class in the basement of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Martin's Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hyperion Books, 2001

MARTIN'S BIG WORDS: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, does not need me to sing its praises. Named as recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award, as a Caldecott Honor Book, Jane Addams Book for Young Readers, ALA Notable Children's Book, and New York Times Book Review Award, to name a few.

 I feature this title, on this weekend, not to honor Dr. King, but to honor the young girls who were killed by the fire bomb thrown into their church that day. Today President Obama signed the Congressional Gold Medal Bill conferring on each of these four girls the highest civilian award granted by our government. The fact that the bill passed on a vote of 97-0 in these contentious political times is every bit as impressive as the passage of the original Civil Rights Act which changed all of our lives. By that I mean that the death of these four young girls can continue to challenge and inspire us to rise above our differences, no matter how deeply held, to do what is right.

So why mention these girls in connection with this book? Find a copy and read Bryan Collier's illustration notes. He refers to his characteristic collage techniques, the symbolism of the stained glass motif, and the portrait images he chose to use. Then he explains his intent for depicting four candles burning brightly on a final page. These represent the four girls who died in the fires on that night fifty years ago.   This is yet another example of the power of picture books, of the  the depths and layers of story, emotion, and insight contained in quality titles for readers of every age.

I honor and applaud the many who serve or served  in uniform, including my father and two brothers-in-law. My attention to this topic in no way reduces my genuine gratitude to them and to all who serve, and to the families who make their service possible.

But the anniversary of the Birmingham church fire, the Congressional Medal celebration, and the Memorial Day weekend came together in my mind in a way I could not ignore. It's easy to associate flames (and bombs) with war and battle. Flames can also inspire, commemorate, honor, and comfort. (Think vigil candles, votive candles, fireworks, and "This Little Light of Mine".) Those who serve in the military let their lights shine for the world on a daily basis. But others may inspire us to our higher selves even when it was never their choice to do so.

May their lights all shine, on and on.

To preview a selection of more traditional picture books on the topic of Memorial Day I'll link you to the always helpful post.

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