Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: Angela Johnson's All Different Now

Title: All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom
Author: Angela Johnson
Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Age Range: 8+

Attempting to learn about history from a textbook can be a dull, even futile effort.  As social studies education scholar Bruce VanSledright points out in his book The Challenge of Rethinking History: On Practices, Theories, and Policy (2011), textbooks present students with a number of obstacles that can hinder their acquisition of historical knowledge.  First, textbooks often gloss over historical happenings, "condensing rich, complex events into [...] compressed accounts" (p. 39) -- rushed, shallow, paragraph-long blurbs that can't possibly help readers build deep, nuanced interpretations about the past.  Instead, kids need to read various accounts (primary and secondary sources) that present different perspectives about historical events.  When they do so, they learn that history isn't quite as simple as a textbook might present it, and they begin to be able to handle constructively the dissonance that varying points of view can create -- a skill they'll need in the real world, a place full of diversity and sundry ways of being and thinking (Barton & Levstik, 2004).

Another problem with textbooks is that they often present history as a "fait accompli" (VanSledright, 2011, p. 79), a done deal or an open-and-shut account of events that can leave readers bored and wondering whether the past has any relevance in our present lives.  "Why should we care about what happened back then?" they might ask.  "Let's just memorize this boring story and get it over with."  But history has so much more to offer, and utilizing resources like All Different Now -- Angela Johnson's moving poem about a young girl learning on June 19, 1865 that she's free -- invites teachers and students to move beyond the textbook and reclaim the fascinating work of doing history.

What I really love about this book is how it brings the past to life and presents the first Juneteenth as a dynamic, open-ended occasion.  E. B. Lewis' illustrations -- watercolor representations of photographs -- look incredibly realistic, showing readers what people might really have looked like as they experienced their freedom for the first time.  Whereas textbooks often rely on flat, black-and-white photographs to represent the nineteenth century, these images are colorful and alive.  Children can clearly see that slaves were real people who had families, "worked [...] under the hot Texas sun" (Johnson, 2014, n.p.), and felt real joy when they learned about emancipation.

Moreover, Johnson's words and Lewis' illustrations convey to readers that the first Juneteenth and the following years were a complex period in history by implying that, after emancipation, things were "all different now," not "all better now."  Yes, readers will see the people in the book experiencing relief and happiness as they "ate as free people / laughed as free people / and told stories as free people" (Johnson, 2014, n.p.), but they will also see the uncertainty that many people felt as they moved forward into their new lives.  In the last two pages of the book, we read the words "all different now" and see the narrator's family leaving their slave quarters.  Their faces display a variety of emotions -- hope, concern, ambiguity.  While emancipation released Black Americans from the bonds of slavery, it wasn't the end of trouble, and many (if not most) former slaves faced continuing racism and violence.  I like how All Different Now acknowledges this reality and leaves the ending open.  The story isn't over; it's not an open-and-shut chapter in history; it's not a "fait accompli."

Introducing this book in the classroom and constructing lessons around it can provide students with learning opportunities to foster not only their historical thinking skills but also other academic abilities.  Reading All Different Now and other primary and secondary sources about Juneteenth (in addition to or in place of textbook reading) can allow students to compare multiple perspectives about the event, encouraging them to develop a more nuanced understanding about emancipation.  Also, teachers can help students connect past and present by investigating how Juneteenth is celebrated today.  For example, if some students observe this holiday themselves, they can invite family members and friends to teach their classmates more about contemporary celebrations.  Furthermore, engaging with this book can strengthen children's literacy skills (Duke, Bennett-Armistead, & Roberts, 2003).  Encountering new words can build vocabulary (Dreher, 2003), while teachers can encourage students to develop their writing skills by creating their own poetry about a historical event (Ray, 2004).

Juneteenth celebration in Austin, 1900

With all of the great nonfiction and historical fiction children's literature out there, teachers don't have to worry about relying on textbooks.  By welcoming books like All Different Now into the classroom, we can give our students all kinds of wonderful opportunities to connect with the past.

Helpful Resources
  • An article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., containing several quotations (primary sources) from former slaves about Juneteenth and emancipation
  • Some examples of how Galveston, Texas (where emancipation was announced) celebrates Juneteenth today  


Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching history for the common good. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dreher, M. J. (2003). Motivating struggling readers by tapping the potential of information books. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 19, 25-38.

Duke, N., Bennett-Armistead, V. S., & Roberts, E. M. (2003). Filling the great void: Why we should bring nonfiction into the early-grade classroom. American Educator, 27(1), 30.

Johnson, A. (2014). All different now: Juneteenth, the first day of freedom. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 

Ray, K. W. (2004). Why Cauley writes well: A close look at what a difference good teaching can make. Language Arts, 82, 100-109.

VanSledright, B. (2011). The challenge of rethinking history education: On practices, theories, and policy. New York, NY: Routledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment