Preaching to the Chickens: How Civil Rights Legend John Lewis’s Humble Childhood Incubated His Heroic Life
The unlikely pen that furnished a revolutionary talent for words that move and mobilize mind, body, and spirit.
By Maria Popova
Civil rights icon and nonviolent resistance leader John Lewis (b. February 21, 1940) is rightly celebrated as a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” He is also a testament to how the humblest beginnings can produce lives of towering heroism. Long before Congressman Lewis became a key figure in ending racial segregation in America, little John was one of nine siblings living on the family’s farm in southern Alabama. It was in that unlikely environment, heavy with labor and love, that young Lewis found his voice as a leader.
Writer Jabari Asim and illustrator E.B. Lewis tell the improbable and inspiring origin story of this largehearted legend in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (public library) — a superb addition to the greatest picture-book biographies of cultural icons.
Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole planet came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks. Winter was too cold to bring them safely into the world, and summer was too hot. Spring was just right.
John’s mother cooked the family meals from vegetables she grew — collards, tomatoes, sweet potatoes — and other goodies. She cleaned the family’s clothes in a big iron pot, stirring them in the boiling water and washing them with homemade soap before hanging them on the line to dry.
Yes, Lord, plenty of work on a farm.
One day, John is put in charge of the chickens and so begins his foray into leadership. His heart ablaze with the dream of becoming a preacher, the boy begins practicing before his willing — or, at least, tacitly agreeable — avian audience. E.B. Lewis’s luminous watercolors are the perfect complement to Asim’s lyrical prose, which together carry the story of how John Lewis incubated his talent for wielding words that move and mobilize mind, body, and spirit.
John loved to tell the chicks the Good News. When he fed and watered them, he spoke about the value of hard work and patience.
Complement the wonderful Preaching to the Chickens with the illustrated biographies of other cultural icons: Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly.
Published December 5, 2016