Review and Reflection: Troublemaker for Justice, Bayard Rustin

Long ago (REALLY long ago) when I was in college, an instructor asked me who my living role models were. It took me forever to decide, since I was only allowed to respond with three names. My first thought was to name family members, all of whom I loved and admired. But I realized that they were not providing ROLES I emulated.

This was in the sixties, and I had been stoking my activist, independent spirit since kindergarten. It was not a requirement, but I knew I wanted to name a feminist leader, a civil rights leader, and a political leader. So, in the civil rights category I named Martin Luther King, Jr., prior to his assassination. In case you are curious, the other two names were Gloria Steinem and Mahatma Gandhi.

I’ve always avoided naming “favorites” in any category, from foods to books to music to… you name it. This is a great example of why. At the time I wanted to include names of fictional characters from literature, historic figures (even from the recent past, like John F. Kennedy), and individuals whose character and values I admired, even if their “roles” were not ones I would choose.

Looking back to that time, I wish I had named Bayard Rustin in that civil rights category. Even though I knew a bit about his pivotal role in the long efforts to achieve equal justice for all, I didn’t know enough about him to name him. I also didn’t know the reasons WHY the details of his leadership and choices at that time were less well known than other leaders.

That’s why I’m excited to cheer for the recently released TROUBLEMAKER FOR JUSTICE: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington (City Lights Publishers).This biography was originally produced and distributed by the nonprofit QuakerPress as BAYARD RUSTIN, the Invisible Activist, and bothversions wereco-authored by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long. I read the original work. In it, I learned so much more about this towering figure in the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin. I enjoyed rereading this important work, which added to  valuable back matter (discussion prompts, timeline, and reference notes) to include an index. It’s all information I wish I had learned when I was younger.

This remarkable man has been the subject of various academic  and adult studies, and Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Even so, Rustin’s name is rarely mentioned in accounts of those important and dramatic decades in current classroom materials geared to younger learners. This dedicated biography of Rustin for young adult readers is overdue and welcome.

My personal participation in civil rights campaigns and protests was active, but limited by youthful compliance with cautious parents. I was involved enough in youth civil rights organizations that the name Bayard Rustin was familiar to me from strategy discussions, and brochures. In later years I read limited references to him in materials about the historic events of that era.

Rustin played an integral role in the movement and mentored various iconic figures whose names are so much better known than his. When you read this thorough account of his life, you’ll understand why he has slipped between the cracks of history, so to speak. As the authors reveal, his comparative obscurity was the result of intentional efforts by Rustin to remain behind the scenes throughout events receiving public attention.

It’s not that he was stage shy, having used his outstanding gifts for music and song to win college scholarships, to earn spending money, to rally support, lift spirits, and simply entertain. He was an eloquent speaker as well, impressively articulating issues, questions, and persuasive arguments. What’s more, he was a handsome man with confident carriage, a ready laugh, and a welcoming attitude. He was direct and creative, well-liked by nearly all who met him. So why is he not better known?

The answer will surprise many present-day young readers.

Rustin was gay. He was accepting of his preferences and identity, never trying to hide or deny it among his close acquaintances. He was not closeted.

But the mid-twentieth century (and long beyond) was an era of bigotry and persecution, a time when homosexuality was considered degenerate, disgusting, shameful, and even illegal. This was such a prevalent attitude that it was codified in laws that criminalized any evidence of homosexuality.

After considerable reflection, Bayard recognized that his own acceptance and openness were not the issue. He was concerned that by assuming a more prominent role in the many public actions of the Civil Rights Movement he would bring more attention to his sexual orientation and relationships. If so, it could develop a “guilt by association” effect on the movement.

He would sacrifice his direct public role to avoid undermining the success of the movement.

Working as a champion for Justice and Fairness and Peace was Rustin’s lifetime goal, his central identity. He was unwilling to risk any actions that could delay or reduce the momentum of the civil rights movement, even though it meant stepping aside from visible public roles. Instead, he worked tirelessly to advise, organize, and promote the many steps along the way from rights denied to rights claimed and established at great cost. The price he paid personally included arrests and attacks, but it also cost him his rightful status among the leaders. Many of those involved say that the March on Washington could never have occurred or succeeded without Rustin’s energy and expertise at the helm, behind the scenes. This biography make it clear they are correct.

The best part of this biographic profile is the skillful balance Houtman, Naegle, and Long achieve in the writing. They deftly explore rich details of Rustin’s early years and beyond. Raised by his Quaker-educated grandma, Julia, he was inspired to relieve suffering, to resolve injustice, and to speak out rather then stand by in the face of war and wickedness. From childhood and on throughout his life, he was called on to demonstrate, time and again, that his actions would speak louder than words.

His words, though, were eloquent, as original music lyrics, poetry, and leadership manuals confirm. Even then, he agreed to leave his name off of authorship to avoid attacks on the organization by those opposed to him for his personal orientation.

Rustin’s story reads as compellingly as a superhero adventure, including imprisonment, working on a chain gang, interactions with iconic civil rights heroes, and so much more.

I wish that this information had been available to me at the time of that original college-age question. I could have cheered for Rustin even back then, claiming him as a role model worthy of wider attention. In that sense, I celebrate this book beyond its obvious outstanding qualities. I welcome the attention it is receiving, including four starred-reviews to date and praise from Representative John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington. I have no doubt that award season will find this title on the shortlists in many categories. It feels like another step toward justice to see Bayard Rustin now rising to greater awareness among all people, but especially among young readers.

This book, and the research and inquiries it inspires, could well land Rustin’s name on the response lists in the current generation when they are asked, “Who are your role models?”

TROUBLEMAKER FOR JUSTICE: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington, by  Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long.

City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2019

Paperback, 160 pages

Biography, Juvenile Nonfiction, Young Adult

ISBN 978-0-87286-765-9

Please support independent bookstores!

Also available in digital format: Kindle/eBook 


STOLEN GIRL: One-of-a-Kind (Important) Novel

THE STOLEN GIRLis an engaging historical novel, but quite different from others I’ve read about post-WWII survivors. I enjoyed this well-told tale, explored though the eyes, voice, and patchy memory of twelve-year-old Nadia, a refugee from five years in a displaced persons camp in Europe. How she came to be there is the crux of a gradually resolved mystery.

The story begins with her emigration journey to Canada in 1950. This skillfully written story opens with scenes that are viscerally compelling, both revealing and mysterious. On the transport ship, her would-be mother, Marusia, is so seasick she wears a bag around her neck throughout the long voyage. Without supervision, Nadia thinks nothing of climbing the rail to dangle her legs over the deck above the ocean waves, savoring the sensation of freedom. My stomach lurched during both descriptions. The opening pages reveal that her survival demands young Nadia adhere to a claim to be the daughter of a caring couple who are nother parents.

In those first chapters, readers experience Nadia’s confusing journey to Brantford, Canada and follow her through earliest days of settling into the dirt-floor, bare-bones wooden house, built for them by her not-really-father. Nadia’s point of view reveals taut and conflicting emotional adjustments to the house, the foods, the school, and her peers. Her long blond braids and blue eyes trigger bullying and accusations that she is a Nazi, an attack of the worst possible kind.

Reading those early-days chapters, I was struck by the many parallels with modern day refugees. They, too, face countless adjustments to language demands, cultural differences, financial struggles, and comparisons with demonized stereotypes. This is a well-researched story that rings true to historic events but is entirely relevant to current events, even though it was published in 2010.

The story’s focus and tension shift as Nadia’s memory of her earlier life gradually returns in fits, flashbacks, and nightmares. The more she recalls, the more frightening and confused she becomes. In troubling scenes she relives being imprisoned in a room with barred windows, living in a grand home, wanting for nothing, but wanting none of it. Eventually she realizes her “Votter” (father) is none other than Himmel. In another episode, she sees Hitler’s face, inches from her own, as he pinches her cheek and calls her a “perfect example of Aryan youth”. As memories assault her, she is plagued with doubts about who she really is. Is she, WAS she, actually a NAZI!

The author’s note at the end of this book begins with the lines ”I first heard about the Lebensborn…”. I first learned about Lebensborn while researching the German occupation of Norway for my trilogy. Among the many hateful policies planned and implemented by Hitler and the Nazi Party (instituted years before the actual war was initiated), this is policy is less known than most. The drive to create a master race, a society of “perfect Aryans” is marked by the horrors of Genocide: euthanasia, sterilization, death camps, and mass murders. The less-discussed aspect of the campaign was the formal policy of LEBENSBORN.This is described in the author’s note, briefly and in age-appropriate language. One aspect of the comprehensive plan to build a superior society involved identifying children who fit a detailed profile of body metrics (blond hair, blue eyes, nose shape, skull size, no defects, intelligence, etc.). Children who “measured up”, especially girls, were forcibly removed from their families and placed in German homes, raised to be the future mothers of the Fatherland, so to speak. That horrific truth inspired the fictional story presented here.

To create a novel centered on such policies, not to mention details of their implementation, feels like an insurmountable challenge for a middle grade novel. In my own books this topic is referred to indirectly and with limited details. Skrypuch has succeeded in this a remarkable challenge by using twelve-year-old Nadia as the lens through which readers learn yet another truth about what happened during that war. We empathize and explore those truths in ways similar to Nadia’s- a bit at a time, returning again and again to the safety and comfort of a loving family and loyal new friends.

THE STOLEN GIRL offers the usual aspects of great middle-grade books in abundance: character development, relationships, increased agency, rising tension, mood, and story structure. This story has depth and topical issues that elevate it to an even higher level than other novels. It will hold its own in literature circles and thoughtful discussions comparing social issues, historic eras, and other titles that feature war-torn lives in other decades.

I hope you’ll read STOLEN GIRL and share it with others. If you do, I’d love to read what you think about it in comments below.

STOLEN GIRLBy Marsha Forschuk Skrypuch

Scholastic Press, Hardcover, 2010. (194 pages)

978-1-338-23304-9 Historical Novel, World War II

Available through independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and Amazon

Welcome, Readers – Let’s Get to Know Each Other

About six years ago my original author website hit the Internet. This was my opening message back in 2013. When updating to this new website, I reread my own words and realized how true they still are. 

Books have been my trusted friends for as long as I can remember. In books I can let myself go, confident that I’ll come out the last page slightly changed, but better off for it in some way. I am well past the point when I “have to” read anything, so if I find myself in poor company within the pages of a book, I put it down and choose something else to read. There are always stacks or lists or “old friend” titles at hand, eager for my company.

Treating human companions that way is not so simple, is it? On the “About” page I indicated I rarely lack for words or ideas, and school was not a struggle for me. Social situations, on the other hand… well, let’s just say that’s not my strongest comfort zone. For years I kept a Snoopy poster on my wall that said, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” In my case, that would have been better stated, “I love humanity, but people make me nervous.”

Of course that was in the days before customized poster making, and nothing ever made Snoopy nervous anyway. I should be so lucky. I’m truly not a loner; I crave interactions, conversations, discussions, and even debates. But a voice in my head is always second-guessing that I’ve said too much, or the wrong thing.

This blog offers me the best of both worlds. I can interact with humans (thanks for being here!) through the printed word. That allows me time to filter my thoughts and reread, to work at not putting my foot in my mouth. Or, if it ends up in there anyway, I can look back to see how I managed to do so. It’s much more casual and spontaneous than writing a book, much closer to writing letters to friends and family.

I’m an advocate for sharing books with kids from birth onward. Reading aloud picture books conjures an image of an adult with a child snuggled close, all four of their hands holding the covers of an open book. I see established readers cradling a book in much the same way, as if reaching out to hold hands with the author, to share and absorb the ideas that were so thoughtfully created for that book. (I suspect that is a large part of why I can’t warm up to eReaders, it messes with my lifelong metaphor!)

It is thrilling (truly, thrilling) to have anything published, but especially a book. It reaches out into the real world, traveling who knows where, not unlike launching a message in a bottle.

But this blog offers something more. It opens a door to conversations and feedback. In that sense I hope you’ll consider adding comments, responding to what I’ve shared, telling me about yourselves, or asking questions. I’ll ask some myself, at times, and if I hear nothing back it will really feel lonely on my side of the keyboard.

It’s your turn now. Will you reach out, too? Is anyone out there?

Farewell, Phil

My writing life was blessed and changed by editor and publisher, Philip Martin. His death-by-cancer in early 2019 precipitated many changes. Among them, is the renovation of my website. This was my final post on the previous website, and I want to begin anew by including my reflection here:

Farewell, Phil.

It is with deep sadness that I share some news.

My writing journey began decades ago, but it found a path toward publication when editor/publisher Philip Martin read a very early story about Norway during WWII and encouraged me to find my way forward. After more years of learning and writing and additional research and reading and … all that goes into become a better writer… I sent a manuscript for Odin’s Promise to Phil. He guided me and that story into my debut book, and then encouraged me to work on the sequel that readers assumed would be coming, even though I did not imagine such a thing. In the four years we worked closely on the trilogy I found a friend and inspiration.

A hot day last summer was the final time I saw Phil. We met for coffee and sweets and more planning. He rubbed his curly hair proudly, his usual smile stretched to a grin, and he ate with good appetite. We discussed a potential event for spring 2019, again focused on ecology and social justice. He asked about my recent projects and said he was eager to get involved in more publishing and had new writing ideas of his own in mind.

Mostly, we caught up.

That meeting offered another dose of Phil’s steadiness, his balance of realism and optimism, his capacity to listen deeply.

Some people exude untamed energy. Phil’s energy was also obvious, but it glowed like embers: warmly, rich with promise, never threatening to overwhelm others or outshine their light.

He honored me by his interest in collaborating and seeking my advice.

Others knew him better, longer, and in more personal relationships than mine.

Still, I was Phil’s friend and he was mine.

His voice and wisdom will remain with me.

I’ll miss him.

Here is his obituary, and I ask that you read it through, as a favor to me and to the kind and wise man he was.


Phil passed away on March 3, 2019 at age 65. Phil traveled his cancer journey for almost two years and died after a very brief stay in hospice. He was born November 22, 1953 to Carl and Nancy (Clements) Martin.

Prior to his calling to book publishing, Phil worked in folk arts programming, education, research, and publishing. He was an important part of the Folklore Village (Ridgeway, Wis.) community for decades, serving as staff some of that time. He documented and published recordings of the music of many ethnic groups in Wisconsin and he was co-founder of the Wisconsin Folk Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.).

Later in his career he focused on his passion for indie book publishing, editing, and writing. He founded the nonprofit book publishing house Midwest Traditions and later his own company Great Lakes Literary where he skillfully and gently edited and guided emerging book writers.

He authored several books: Farmhouse Fiddlers, Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, How to Write Your Best Story. And he edited the anthologies The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, The New Writer’s Handbook, My Midwest. He had begun writing a book on neighboring. He served as manager at the nonprofit organizations Rethinking Schools, Alzheimer’s Association, and Sienna Retreat Center as well as Kalmbach Publishing and Odyssey Marine Exploration.Phil volunteered at his church First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, focusing on communications and marketing. He also volunteered in a wide range of ways at Folklore Village years ago, from serving on the board to being a lead member of the landscaping committee.

Phil was passionate about playing soccer and loved cross-country skiing deep in the woods. He was a great and adventurous cook and generous host. He enjoyed hiking and camping, especially along Lake Superior and in the Rockies. He was a wonderfully intuitive traditional Scandinavian fiddler and was Jean’s favorite dance partner for any Scan dance or Wisconsin polka.

Phil celebrated and created beauty and love in this world. He had a reverence for the natural world and was awed by the kindness of humanity. He was gentle and warm, a deep holistic thinker who aimed for excellence and integrity in all his relationships with people and his work.

Review: Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea

By Lauren Wolk

Dutton Books for Young Readers, Hardcover, 9781101994856, 304pp.

Publication Date: May 2, 2017

Writers debate the pros and cons of including prologues, especially in books for young readers. I’d advise writers mulling over that decision to read the prologues in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea  and also in Wolf Hollow (reviewed here). In each, she sets a high bar for their use. Snippets of intriguing information are revealed through the unmistakable voices of her young female characters. Glimmers of mystery bob through those initial pages with just enough irresistible shimmer to spark curiosity and set the hook firmly in the reader’s mind.

I’m not a fisher-person, nor an islander, but I’ll extend the above analogy. It applies to Wolk’s skillful reeling in of those prologue readers. The early chapters of Beyond the Bright Sea unfold at a subdued pace, but one that manages to reveal stunning information: a newborn’s unexplained arrival on an isolated island in the North Atlantic, an austere but tender-hearted man who discovers the baby strapped to a boat and takes her as his responsibility, and a trusted neighbor woman whose steady presence anchors the unmoored pair into a sort of family. That purposeful pace sets the hook before the story accelerates.

The child, Crow, ages quickly to a preteen girl whose growing pains are largely in her heart. In those first few chapters we learn through Wolk’s skillfully side-eyed writing that Crow’s skin is darker than the other islanders, even in the summer season. They keep her at arm’s length, literally, but we share Crow’s suspicions that her skin color alone is not the reason for their distance. We also discover the blend of physical and moral strength and emotional pain of Osh, the only father she’s ever known. Miss Maggie, upright in posture, viewpoint, and resilient self-reliance, is a boundless source of security and comfort, despite her no-nonsense demeanor.

Thirty pages in, we’re fully committed to Crow, wondering with her who she really is, who would have tied her, as a baby, to a boat bench and launched her into the sea. Did her mother give her another name? Who are those “real” parents, ones she can rightly claim all the while reassuring Osh that he would always and forever be her “real” father, too? We ache with her and him when we see those questions raise his fear of losing her. We feel the tension and stakes rise as Crow learns about the nearby but long-abandoned leper colony on Penikese Island. Even now the word “leper” generates misunderstanding, but in the years following the First World War the fear about what is now known as Hansen’s disease was rampant.

With each secret revealed, Crow’s nimble mind arranges facts amid glaring gaps. Her developing theories compel her to pursue answers relentlessly, exposing her and the people she loves to unimagined dangers. The rising action never really ebbs, creating a book that exceeds the must-read label to a read-it-to-the-end-before-I-sleep story.

And that’s the way I read it, feeling the same driving compulsion that Crow felt. All the while, though, I knew I’d reread it– sooner rather than later.

And I did.

The second read was for the writer in me.

I’m not an island person, and Wolk definitely is. Even so, I’ve read other books with island settings, both classics and current ones, that took me to their worlds with vivid sensory grace. None, though, made me want to claim the island as my own.

None, until now.

Now I long to visit that little fictional, unnamed chunk of land off Cuttyhunk Island in the Elizabeths near the coast of Cape Cod. And, thanks to Wolk’s writing, I have visited it, virtually, and will again.

Her writing is as breathtakingly potent at describing physical circumstances as it is when revealing character and relationships:

“When I learned from Miss Maggie that coal squeezed by the weight of the world turned into diamonds, I looked at it differently and wondered what other rough and simple stuff held the promise of something rare.” (p.20)

“The flames in the distance, still burning in the night, had made it seem as if the sea itself had caught fire.” (p.38)

“I was so afraid of losing what I had, not sure what I could both cling to and still reach for without losing my hold.”(p.230)

In her debut novel, Wolk’s antagonist was a cunning, sociopathic girl who generated danger in a calculated way. In this novel the antagonist is a brute of a man, driven without a moral rudder by greed. His first appearance is a menacing and ominous one, achieved with a minimum of description or detail. As he reappears in successive scenes, the potential for harm escalates: to Crow, Osh, Miss Maggie and to the life Crow is beginning to understand.

I recommend this as highly as I did Wolk’s earlier Wolf Hollow, and I look forward to reading whatever she creates next.

Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books • 2017
284 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages 10 -14
ISBN 9781101994856
multiple starred reviews