“Lift As You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker” by local author Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, just came out this spring and is the latest addition to a growing and marvelous canon of picture book biographies.
Although picture books are marketed for the 4- to 8-year-old reader and are meant to be read aloud, these biographies also work well for the middle-grade reader. The picture book format can give young readers their first, brief introduction to complicated topics that they can explore in more depth as they grow up.
For example, readers of “Lift As You Climb” will be introduced to civil rights organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Coalition) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). In addition, they will learn about efforts to picket stores that relied on Black people as customers but refused to employ them. This is an element of the civil rights struggle that doesn’t often get mentioned.
But before readers get to those topics, they get to spend many pages learning about Ella Baker’s childhood, how her grandfather was a preacher, she grew up on a farm and her mother was a strong influence. The seeds of Baker’s adult life were planted in this childhood Hruby Powell depicts so well. As a child, Baker helps those neighbors who needed a hand. Her mother told her, “lift as you climb,” meaning don’t just try to get ahead for yourself but bring others along with you. And that is what Baker did. She worked for the betterment of everyone, not just herself.
As well as “lift as you climb,” Hruby Powell highlights for readers Baker’s ability to listen, to really listen to those people for whom she was trying to help. I loved this point that Baker sought out and befriended the average person, not the leaders or the best educated in the Black community, just the common man — and especially women. The third thread Hruby Powell plucks throughout the story is the message Baker absorbed from her grandfather, continually asking everyone she came into contact with, “what do you hope to accomplish?” That phrase serves as a guiding light for Baker and many whom she helped and supported.
Some more subtle messages include the fact that there were not many women in the upper levels of leadership in any of these civil rights organizations. Baker was one of the few, and she did not appreciate taking orders from those leaders.
Ultimately, the most powerful message in Hruby Powell’s biography is that readers might imagine themselves in Baker’s shoes … or following her footsteps; finding a cause they believe in and dedicating themselves to it. Precisely because hers is, most likely, not a familiar name to young readers, “Lift As You Climb” sends the message that many people make big contributions to a cause, even if they don’t seek or gain the limelight.
I am often reminded of the famous TED talk by author Chimamande Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she points out in many compelling ways how every person has many facets and it is important to not simply see them as a single facet based on one thing we know about them. Now, this might be a stretch, but bear with me! I believe that providing access to many short (picture book) biographies about ordinary people doing extraordinary things is another way to avoid this danger of a single story. These stories help young readers understand that the world is more complicated and nuanced than simply what famous leaders, charismatic personalities or celebrities experience and accomplish. That’s powerful stuff.