‘Picture the Dream’: New exhibit at Eric Carle Museum views civil rights movement through children’s books

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum, talks about the artwork in “Picture The Dream: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum, says artwork in the museum’s new exhibit comes from books for the youngest readers up to those for young adults.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, the chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum, looks through books that are part of the new exhibits “Picture The Dream: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum, talks about the artwork that’s part of the new exhibit “Picture The Dream: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, pages through books that are part of the new exhibit “Picture The Dream: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Eric Carle Museum, talks about the artwork that’s part of the new exhibit “Picture The Dream: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Children's Books.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Illustration by Philippe Lardy from “A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson.

  • Artwork by Vanessa Brantley Newton from “The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist.”  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Brian Pinkney from “Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood up by Sitting Down” by Andrea Pickney.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Earl Bradley (E.B.) Lewis from “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson.

  • Illustration by Bryan Collier, from “All Because You Matter” by Tami Charles. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Shadra Strickland from “White Water: Inspired by a True Story” by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein. 

  • Illustration by PJ Loughran from “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery. Courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Children’s book author Andrea David Pinkney is the guest curator of the Eric Carle Museum exhibit “Picture the Dream.” Courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Moving from the late days of segregation in the Deep South to the new wave of activism inspired by Black Lives Matter constitutes a long, complicated arc. You might think a series of documentaries or a deep academic study are needed to provide a full understanding of the triumphs, tragedies and people involved in that history.

But a new exhibit in Amherst examines the issue via a different lens. “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books,” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, looks back at the pivotal years of the 1950s and 1960s, using the work of 41 artists to tell the story of an era in which ordinary people rose up to contest centuries of injustice — and how the events of that time continue to echo today.

More than 80 works of art offer profiles of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson, as well as accounts of seminal events including the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 and the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and the effort to register Black voters in Mississippi that was violently opposed by many whites. It’s all told with straightforward stories and imagery designed to introduce children to this dramatic era.

The exhibit — the first to examine the civil rights movement through picture books, the Carle says — was supposed to open in February to coincide with Black History Month. The museum, though, closed in December because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the state and is just reopening (March 11). “Picture the Dream” will now be on view into early July.

It’s been worth the wait, says Ellen Keiter, the museum’s chief curator. She began thinking about the show some years back and got in touch with Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of numerous books for children and young adults, to serve as curator.

Pinkney, who also has a deep background in children’s book publishing, is married to children’s book illustrator Brian Pickney, who in turn is the son of Jerry Pickney, also an illustrator and children’s book writer.

“I thought Andrea would be just the person to help put this together,” Keiter said during a recent tour of the exhibit. “She’s a trustee of the museum, she’s a wonderful writer, and she has such a deep knowledge of children’s books and the civil rights movement.”

Pinkney, who wrote all the text for the exhibit, said during a phone interview that using picture books “just provides a really good way for parents and children and teachers to look at this history and have a dialogue about it.” And, Pinkney noted, looking at the images from the civil rights era also gives children a reference point for “what they see on TV today, and how these issues are continuing.” 

A historic era 

Keiter said she, Carle Executive Director Alexandra Kennedy, and Pinkney, who lives in New York City, first went to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which has an extensive collection of photos from the civil rights era, to begin their research, using the images to reference related children’s book titles. There were some tough decisions to make in choosing what artwork to include, Keiter says, as they looked at hundreds of books. (The show also first opened at the High Museum last year.)

In the end, they opted for a mix of art to create three themed sections in the exhibit. The first examines the legacy of segregation in the South and how it sparked the civil rights movement. For instance, there’s a haunting portrait of Emmett Till, the young Black teen from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955, was brutally murdered by two white men after allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The illustration, which comes from “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” a 2009 book by Marilyn Nelson, is by Swiss artist Philippe Lardy and shows Till’s face framed by a “wreath” of rope, chain and barbed vines. A cluster of crows — “Jim Crows,” as Pinkney puts it — look on from the side.

“We went back and forth on that image,” Pinkney said. “How much do you want to show children about this kind of violence? What is appropriate? But in the end, we thought not using it would be a missed opportunity to look at what was an important event” in the civil rights movement.

The exhibit’s main section examines many of the key moments from the movement: lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration drives, famous protest marches such as the one across a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965 at which John Lewis, the late U.S. congressman from Georgia and at that time a young activist, had his skull fractured by state troopers.

The artwork doesn’t zero in on this kind of violence, though it doesn’t shy away from it, either. One illustration from the book “Let the Children March” shows an overhead view of a small group of Black children being blasted with water from fire hoses; police dogs pull at the legs of two of the children.

The more prevailing theme, though, is of the courage and determination of protesters — adults and children alike.

As one example, there’s an unforgettable illustration from “The Youngest Marcher,” a 2017 book about Audrey Faye Hendricks, who in May 1963, at age 9, joined the famous Children’s March to protest segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. After hundreds of adult civil rights protesters had been jailed, Black children left their classes and also marched en masse to protest segregation. They were arrested, too.

The image from the story, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, shows young Audrey, wearing a sweater, skirt, white socks and dark shoes, sprawled on a filthy mattress in a jail cell. Yet the sacrifice she and many other Black children made helped galvanize the civil rights movement at a key moment, prompting President John F. Kennedy, previously slow to intervene in the South, to support federal legislation to end segregation.

Though Keitner says most of the artists represented in the show are African American, work by some white artists is also included, and the contributions of white civil rights workers are celebrated in some illustrations. So, too, is the theme of children ignoring their parents’ instructions not to cross racial barriers: An illustration from the 2001 book “The Other Side” depicts a white girl and an African American one clasping hands by the fence that divides their families’ yards.

Keiter and Pinkney note that the exhibit’s third themed section, “Today’s Journey, Tomorrow’s Promise,” has taken on added relevancy given the protests that flared last summer over police killings of a number of Black men. Artwork here looks at the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the increasing diversity of the U.S. population.

Also in the exhibit: a 1960s-style TV that plays a video loop with interviews with Andrea Pinkney and various figures from the civil rights era, including Roslyn Pope, who as a college student in Georgia in 1960 wrote “An Appeal for Human Rights,” a text that became a civil rights manifesto, gaining national attention after it was published in numerous newspapers, including the New York Times.

“It’s hard to imagine now what it was like,” Pope says on the video, which includes documentary footage from the civil rights struggle. “It’s not that you ever forget, but it’s kind of incredible that we lived the way we lived and survived — and broke though barriers.”