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Viewing the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books

Viewing the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books

In a verdant rural setting, a weathered gray fence separates two girls, one Black, one white. The Black child extends her hand as the white girl, already straddling the fence’s top rail, reaches down. Although they barely grasp each other’s fingers, a viewer can sense their curiosity, their anticipation, their desire to surmount this barrier.

The scene, a watercolor by E.B. Lewis, is among the first works visitors encounter in “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books,” on view through July 24 at the New-York Historical Society. Created for Jacqueline Woodson’s book “The Other Side,” from 2001, the painting reflects two of this exhibition’s major themes: that progress stems from everyday, individual action as much as from collective effort; and that children, far from being mere witnesses to the civil rights movement, have played central roles in it.

“It was kids themselves who are on the sidewalks and streets, going to jail, getting bitten by dogs, taking the attack of billy clubs,” Andrea Davis Pinkney, the exhibition’s curator, said in an interview at the museum. “And that is happening right now. This minute.”

The show, which traces the civil rights movement from segregation to the present, captures those terrible moments, along with interludes of joy. Organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, “Picture the Dream” is the first exhibition to chronicle this history through children’s literature, Pinkney said. When the show debuted at the High Museum in August 2020, she added, some visitors thought George Floyd’s killing and the following protests had inspired it. But while “Picture the Dream” had been planned much earlier, subsequent events, including the racist massacre in Buffalo last month, have only sharpened its relevance.

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