Little more than a year after millions of Americans of all ages and races took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, denouncing systemic racism and demanding social reform, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish a history of the Black Lives Matter movement for middle grade readers. Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter by New York Times journalists Veronica Chambers and Jennifer Harlan will be released on August 17 under HMH’s Versify children’s imprint curated by Kwame Alexander.
Call and Response—the title refers to an oral tradition in which a speaker and their audience interact with each other during the speaker’s presentation—draws from the New York Times archives as well as other primary sources to chart the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement. The hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter emerged in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of African American teenager Trayvon Martin. Not only do Chambers and Harlan rely upon the reporting done by their colleagues at the New York Times over the years, but they also include approximately 100 photographs to further familiarize readers with the the grassroots movement that culminated with the protests that swept the nation last summer.
Call and Response, Chambers told PW, attempts to answer the following questions, thus providing a starting point for children to initiate conversations with peers, parents, teachers, and librarians: “What is the history of systemic racism? What is the history of the police state? What is the history of protest? What forms do protest take?”
Chambers explained that “the first half of the book is really about how the movement was built.” The narrative is supplemented by a chapter defining systemic racism. “We talk about the murders of Black people. Readers might be nine or 10 years old, so we were very careful with our language. The goal of the book is not to take on the killings, but rather to show the power of protest, what happened over the past seven years that literally became the biggest movement our nation has ever seen.”
Chambers describes the second half of the book as her favorite section, because “that is where the lift is”—an exploration of political and social protest in American culture, and the roles they play in the lives of everyday people: “young people, musicians, artists, muralists.”
It’s a section that relies heavily on both historical and contemporary images, Chambers explained, with most of the photographs included taken by New York Times photographers such as the paper's first Black staff photographer, Don Hogan Charles. There is also a photograph taken by Gordon Parks, who for years chronicled the African American experience for Life magazine. “The pictures tell a story,” she said. “I love the pictures of kids at protests, the pictures of families. The way you see young people come alive in the streets, on bicycles, on horses, on skateboards—it’s very powerful. I am so excited to visit classrooms and go online with kids and talk about that section of the book.”
While acknowledging that Call and Response explores topics that might upset some readers, Versify editor Weslie Turner strongly believes that such a book is long overdue. “Growing up Black in America,” Turner pointed out, “I never had the luxury of turning my eyes away from things that may or may not have been age-appropriate for me. The conversations about race, and ethnicity, and privilege I’ve had over the course of my life would have been infinitely easier if more of my white peers had known about these things from the ages that I knew about them.”
Describing the production process, Turner emphasized the painstaking attention that was paid to the wording of the text. “We were very intentional about the way that we described things. But we did not pull punches or pull back on factual information, even if those facts were things that some people think children might not need to know about—because there are children who need to know about those things every day.”
Turner expressed confidence in Call and Response’s potential for crossover appeal, noting, “I think that there are adults who get excited about having a very basic explainer for things. There are people besides young readers looking for factual information about BLM. They might know the three words but may not have all the factual information: what it is, where it came from, and what it stands for.”
Call and Response is not Chambers’ first foray into publishing children’s books that touch on the volatile mixture of politics, race, and popular culture. She is the author of a number of books for adults and children; she wrote the text for the picture book Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb!, illustrated by Rachelle Baker (Dial, 2020), and also wrote a book she describes as “very much like Call and Response, about people who changed the world,” Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Injustice and Tyranny (HarperCollins, 2018).
Most recently, Chambers paired with Harlan and the staff of the New York Times to write a history of women’s suffrage in the U.S. for middle graders, Finish the Fight: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote (Versify, 2020). “It was really a great experience working with Versify and its editors,” Chambers said. “That led to this BLM book.”
While Chambers acknowledges that working on Call and Response was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she feels strongly that children should be part of the national conversation on systemic racism that has emerged in the wake of police brutality towards Black people. “Kids want to be part of the conversation,” Chambers said, noting that she had approached writing Call and Response from the perspective of a journalist, a “passionate” children’s author, and the mother of a teenager who had participated in her first march last year. “They are more curious than many adults and they appreciate a good story. They can handle the truth.”
Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter by Veronica Chambers of the New York Times. HMH/Versify, Aug. $21.99, ISBN 978-0-35-857341-8