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TL v66n2: 50 Years of Juvenile Literature
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50 Years of Juvenile Literature: Focus on African American Civil Rights


Sara Rachels, Jim Nance, and Heidi Busch

This article is based on a presentation at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Kingsport, TN) in April 2016.


Conference Program Abstract

Dare to imagine: Civil rights as shown through the lens of Children’s Literature. For the past 15 years, the University of Tennessee at Martin has held a Civil Rights Conference. This past year, the opportunity presented itself for the library, as an academic institution, to give a presentation at the conference. Our topic was 50 years of juvenile literature with an emphasis on African American civil rights and we prepared for the presentation by creating a bibliography of works we felt best exemplified our topic. We will share with you our process in selecting materials for inclusion in the presentation. Additionally, we will review the unique collection development strategies we implemented to evaluate and expand an important part of our collection.


The University of Tennessee at Martin has hosted an annual Civil Rights Conference for 15 years, and in 2015 the conference theme was “LBJ and the Great Society at 50.” While this conference involves the whole campus, the library staff had never been actively involved, so we created a presentation topic that would lend itself to the conference theme. A member of the library staff decided that looking at the past 50 years of juvenile literature containing a primary theme related to the civil rights movement would prove to be an interesting topic. Its advantages would be twofold: The topic would fit well with the conference theme and would also be of interest to our students and our community. Our presentation proposal, “50 Years of Juvenile Literature – Focus on African American Civil Rights,” was accepted.


Our first step was to create a large list of titles to evaluate. Using the commercial resource Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database as a starting point, we compiled a list of several hundred titles and recorded the titles in a spreadsheet. We then used various online resources to locate additional appropriate titles (see Appendix). In the spreadsheet, we recorded title along with author, publication date, and appropriate age level. The advantage of using a spreadsheet was that we could easily sort the list by any of the various columns and we could easily remove duplicate titles. Eventually, we compiled a list of approximately 1,000 titles (see Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. Narrowing Down the Title ListFigure 1. Narrowing Down the Title List

After creating the list of titles and considering its enormous size, we decided to subdivide the list of titles by grade levels: lower elementary, middle grades, and higher levels. We held regular meetings and decided to further divide the categories into people, places, and ideas based on the importance of people, places, and ideas to the civil rights movement. By assigning the category of places to lower elementary titles, people to middle grade titles, and ideas to higher level titles, we were able to narrow the list down to about 150 titles and we created the visual equation: Places + People = Ideas.

We took into account that younger students just being introduced to the civil rights movement would first travel by book to such places as Birmingham, Alabama or Washington, D.C. They would first learn of events such as marches that took place in these areas and would learn how each specific region handled and reacted to the events. Examples of books chosen for this part of the equation included Follow the Drinking Gourd, Ruth and the Green Book, and Sit-In.

As they achieved familiarity with the places of the civil rights movement, students in middle grades would be introduced to the people who played an important role in the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. The students would learn to make the connection and link these people to the places. Rosa Parks would become linked to Montgomery, Alabama and the bus boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. would become linked to marches in Washington, D.C., Selma, Alabama, and other places. Books chosen for this part of the equation included titles such as Witnesses to Freedom, Birmingham Sunday, and Yankee Girl.

To find the result of the equation and complete the circle of learning, students in high school and beyond would begin to key on ideas coming from the civil rights movement such as integration or voting rights. They would develop a better understanding of why we now have integrated schools and voting rights for African Americans based on the events that happened in these places and the efforts of the people that prompted changes to take place. As illustrations, we chose such titles as A Time to Break Silence, The Souls of Black Folk, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

Three people from our group each took a grade level and chose 20 titles to highlight in a bibliography. Additionally, we chose five to 10 titles from each grade to include in our presentation for the civil rights conference. We looked up reviews of the books and relied on such sources as School Library Journal to aid in the decision process. We then checked the library’s catalog to see if we already had the books, and if we did, we pulled them from the shelves. If we did not have the books, we partnered with the acquisitions department to order them. After the presentation, we put the books on display for patrons to check out and enjoy.

Collection Development

As a medium-sized academic library with a limited staff, it often feels we are unable to focus on a particular part of the collection that may need attention. In working through the process of creating the presentation, we had the opportunity to narrow our focus for collection development. We were able to limit our attention to one area, the juvenile collection, and one subject, African American Civil Rights. This proved beneficial in many different ways (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. Collection DevelopmentFigure 2. Collection Development Aspect of the Project

We were able to determine what we already had in our collection that fit within the parameters of people, places, and ideas for the different grade levels. We discovered that we had several of the titles on the review lists already in our collection. Many of these titles are award winners or classics that are found in most library collections. As part of this process, we also found items that needed to be repaired or rebound in order to remain a part of the collection. This allowed us to keep older materials without purchasing replacements. Repairing and rebinding helped to keep project costs down.

Paul Meek Library has been collecting juvenile award-winning titles for many years. One of the awards represented in the collection is the Coretta Scott King Award. As part of the review process, we noticed that for several years, we had only the honor book and not the award-winning title or vice versa. We have since ordered books to fill the gaps in this important category.

As looked at the lists of books from various review sources, we found several new titles that we felt were important to add to the juvenile collection. These titles might not have been added to the collection had we not been able to limit our focus to a specific topic.


The library’s participation in the Civil Rights Conference proved beneficial both to the library and to the staff who participated. On a professional basis, this was the first time in the 15 year history of the conference that the library was involved. It introduced some of the newer members of the staff to the campus faculty and the community and demonstrated that they are interested in participating in campus events not directly related to the library. It also allowed the staff to spend the time and do an in-depth evaluation of a very narrow component of our collection. The staff members concentrated on the juvenile collection and then looked at subject access and online catalog records as well as physical condition of those chosen titles. This process also provided a list of additional titles that might be considered essential or important works that had simply not been ordered and provided the impetus for the library to spend the money to add them to the collection.

The Civil Rights Conference is an important annual event and is promoted extensively across Northwest Tennessee. The library’s participation got our name on the flyers and promotional materials that were widely distributed. In some cases this was the first introduction to the community in general that the library has a sizeable juvenile book collection. Having library staff members participate in the 15th annual conference led directly to the invitation for staff to participate in the following year’s conference, and this has opened some doors in shared research between librarians and teaching faculty. This project is an example of reaching outside the library and making it known that library staff is interested in participating and capable of research and presenting an interesting topic in an interesting manner.

Appendix: Selected Lists of Juvenile Literature on the Civil Rights Era

A.S.T.A.L. (2007, June 21). Literature of the civil rights movement: A brief annotated bibliography. Retrieved from

Hartford, B. (n.d.). Freedom movement bibliography. Retrieved from

Lauterbach, S., & Reynolds, M. (2013, April 3). Literature on the civil rights era for young readers: An annotated bibliography. Retrieved from

Library of Congress. (2012, July 17). Civil Rights resource guide: Selected bibliography. Retrieved from


Sara Rachels, Library Specialist at the University of Tennessee at Martin, can be reached at

Jim Nance, Reference Librarian at the University of Tennessee at Martin, can be reached at

Heidi Busch, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Tennessee at Martin, can be reached at


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