When she first picked up Choosing Brave in her school library in Provincetown, Natoya Hermitt thought it was going to be “about a mother and her son, living in the countryside.”
The book is Angela Joy’s 2022 biography, Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Maggie Hanelt, the youth librarian at the Truro Public Library, had suggested the book, which is written in free verse and illustrated by Janelle Washington, a self-taught artist working with cut paper.
Despite its picture-book format, the biography recounts the story of the 1955 murder of Mamie Till-Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till.
Natoya is 13 years old and says she thinks the book is appropriate for children eight and older, “if they are people like me who really love the civil rights movement. This type of story you usually see in chapter books that kids do not always like to read,” she adds.
The story doesn’t end with Till’s death. It explores the life of his mother and her resolve to keep her son’s memory alive and advocate for civil rights.
Washington created the illustrations for the book by cutting sheets of black paper with a craft knife and adding layers of red, blue, and white tissue paper. Black shadows depict the violent characters without showing any details.
“This one illustration really touched me,” says Natoya, opening the book to two pages that show an umbilical cord connecting a pregnant Mamie to her son. The image reminds Natoya of her own brother’s birth.
The bond between a mother and her child resonated with Natoya throughout the book. “One of the amazing things about Mamie Till-Mobley was how she never gave up on her son,” she says, referring to her devotion to helping Emmett recover from polio and then to overcome the resulting stutter.
Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003 at 81, having galvanized the civil rights movement by confronting the world with what was done to her son. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who had accused Emmett Till of accosting her, died last month at 88, having first recanted her story and then equivocated about the truth.
“I especially think my Black friends could be interested in this book because it shows Black people in the time of the civil rights movement,” says Natoya. “It shows how much we have grown.”
She says she also likes the book “because it portrays the sadness and happiness that it takes to be Black.
“I am glad the book has mostly Black characters in it,” says Natoya. “In a lot of books, you see empowering Black voices but then at the end of the book the Black voice is the one that is shut down. I like that in this book she dies having a voice.”
Thinking about her own voice, Natoya says she would use it to say: “Whatever you are going through right now, or whatever you have gone through, you can look at yourself and see that you made it.”