A story not often covered in history texts, Susan E. Goodman’s The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, illustrated by the great E.B. Lewis, pays tribute to a young black girl and her family’s efforts to bring about equal education in the public schools of mid-19th-century America.
Sarah Roberts’ family sends her to a nearby school, filled with white children. It’s a good school, “one of Boston’s best, with more books than most kids had ever seen.” But one day Sarah is escorted from the classroom by a policeman—and told never to return. Sarah’s parents hire a lawyer and fight back in Roberts v. City of Boston. The stakes are high—“Everyone knew that if Sarah got her rights, so would every other African American child in Boston”—but they lose their court case. It did constitute, however, the “first steps” towards desegregated schools and paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education. The case was also one of many firsts, as Goodman notes, including the first presence of a black lawyer in a supreme court.
Goodman’s writing is clear and powerful, and Lewis’ watercolors are rich and nuanced. In a spread where Goodman compares the Civil Rights struggles of African Americans to a “march toward justice,” Lewis depicts the Ku Klux Klan and even Abraham Lincoln with a gun near his head. It’s an unflinching moment, and Goodman’s metaphor—that justice is often a “[t]hree steps forward, one step back” and “[o]ne step forward, three back” kind of march—is effective.
Her closing author’s note, as well as the rest of book’s back matter, is insightful. Goodman discusses the narrative choices she made in presenting the facts of the event, such as including Sarah in the courtroom scenes, though she can’t prove she was actually there at the trial. It’s an honest and informative set of thoughts from the author—and good for children reading nonfiction to consider.
A stirring and inspiring story, this one is an excellent addition to classroom and library bookshelves.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.