Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case
Written by Patricia Hruby Powell; Illustrated by Shadra Strickland
Published by Chronicle Books, 2017
Grades 7 and up
“Tell the Court I love my wife / and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her / in Virginia.”
These words comprised the message that Richard Loving sent to the U. S. Supreme Court as the Justices heard arguments in a 1967 landmark case for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested and convicted in their home state of Virginia for the crime of interracial marriage. Richard, a white man, and Mildred, a black woman, had grown up together, their families having spent afternoons together in a small community of Central Point, Virginia, where racial integration was the norm. Despite the support from their families and friends, the Lovings were forced to leave Virginia and were forbidden to re-enter the state together for any reason. With timelines, photographs, and dozens of primary source documents, award-winning author Patricia Hruby Powell employs powerful free verse to chronicle and contextualize the events leading up to the case. Beginning with Mildred’s preteen years and alternating narrators with Richard, Powell presents an intimate, heart-rending, and lyrical portrait of their teenage romance, their decision to marry, their exile from Virginia, and their endurance during the nine years it took for their case to be heard in the Supreme Court. Shadra Strickland’s brush pen and Adobe photoshop illustrations add both warmth and realism to the text. A story so moving and a case so critical to our social freedoms today, all presented in a format so compelling, Loving vs. Virginia is a distinguished work of literature to share with students.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Loving Day. June 12, the anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling, is an unofficial national holiday aptly called “Loving Day.” Celebrate Loving Day with your students by having them inquire into the different cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and racial marriages in their own families. Have students create multimedia presentations of their family trees, perhaps highlighting and summarizing some of the love stories within them. Invite students’ families to view the presentations and hear the stories behind them. You might even invite family members to tell those stories themselves. The Loving Day website has several ideas and resources to help you plan a celebration, while The Loving Project documents the experiences of married interracial couples with podcasts.
- 50th Anniversary of Loving v. Virginia. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling. As described in the activity above, celebrations of all types are being planned across a variety of media outlets. Explore some of these anniversary , commemorations, such as the ones planned by The Loft Literary Center, the Asian Arts Initiative, and the Mixed Remixed Festival , as well as the Loving Day website and The Loving Project mentioned above. Encourage students to participate in these celebrations, if they can, or to create or host their own version of the celebration within their local communities.
- What is a Documentary Novel? Compare Loving vs. Virginia to Avi’s Nothing but the Truth and Deborah Wiles’ Countdown, both of which also identify themselves as documentary novels. What do these novels have in common? How might a documentary novel be similar to and yet different from other genres, such as historical fiction or literary journalism? To provide insight into process of constructing a documentary novel, watch the Loving vs. Virginia Virtual Program, sponsored by the Library of Congress, on May 3, 2017 at 10:30 am. The program will be streamed live on YouTube and feature both Patricia Hruby Powell and Shadra Strickland sharing research sources, as well as law experts discussing the famous case. More information is located here. Encourage students to try their hand at writing their own documentary pieces, using any of the novels mentioned here as mentor texts.
- Primary Sources as Subplot. Woven among the pages of the Lovings’ story are primary source documents that tell another story, particularly the social and legal developments of the Civil Rights Movement that established the context for the Lovings’ case. Have students review and closely read these documents, piecing together the story arc that they tell. Invite them to list the details they would like to know more about, and guide them through the research and additional reading they would need to do to learn more. A number of children’s and young adult books that have been featured on this blog can also serve as further reading, such as The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial; The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore; The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights; One Crazy Summer; and P.S. Be Eleven.
- Real Life-to-Book-to-Film Comparison. Have students research the actual events, people, and details on which the novel is based. Then have them watch the 2016 film Loving, directed by Nancy Buirski and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. What is similar between the film and Patricia Hruby Powel’’s novel? What is different? What real life details are omitted or changed as the story gets transformed from real life to book and film representation? Which version of these events make a “better story”, and why?
- Emerging Nonfiction Genres Verse Novels. As genres of children’s literature mix and remix with one another, the nonfiction verse novel has emerged as a fascinating format in which to provide factual information. But it’s not the only one. There are nonfiction graphic novels, nonfiction poetry anthologies, and creative nonfiction picture books to name a few. With the help of your colleagues, local librarian, or bookseller, gather sets of these nonfiction genres. Share them with students, inviting them to study and closely read them with a lens on each genre’s characteristics, permutations, strengths, and limitations. How do they resemble and differ from traditional nonfiction texts? How do they resemble and differ from their other traditional format (e.g., verse novels, graphic novels, poetry anthologies, etc.)? Some nonfiction verse novels highlighted on The Classroom Bookshelf include Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, also by Patricia Hruby Powell, and Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, while nonfiction graphic novels we’ve highlighted include March: Book Three, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Drowned City, by Don Brown.
- Author Study. Gather a collection of Patricia Hruby Powell’s work and biographical information, including interviews. Read through her books as a class, noting similarities and differences across the books’ formats and styles. Take a close look at her writing techniques, noting her word choices and use of figurative language. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Examine Patricia Hruby Powell’s storytelling techniques, as well as the topics and perspectives she writes about in her books. Compile a list of ‘writing lessons’ gained from this author study and invite your students to try out some of the writing techniques you have discussed in their own writing. Gather information from the websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources.
- “Visual Journalism”. Visual journalism is described in an artist’s statement by Strickland as a “loose, impromptu drawing style that allowed lines to overlap and preserved the informal feeling of sketches.” Pioneered by the artist Robert Weaver, visual journalism was a style of illustrative reporting from the Lovings’ time. Research visual journalism as a class as well as Weaver’s illustrative work. Discuss the choice Strickland made as an artist to use what she describes as “fluid illustrations to reflect the time and journey that Richard and Mildred experienced together.” Gather photographs from sources like LIFE magazine and offer opportunities for students to create their own visual journalism illustrations to express either historic or contemporary reporting of social issues.
- American Civil Liberties Union Study. When the Lovings are arrested in Central Point, Virginia for miscegenation, they live in Washington, D.C. with relatives. When they want to return home and are rearrested, their lawyer recommends they contact the American Civil Liberties Union to help them with their case. Discuss the role the ACLU plays in the Lovings story as well as the resistance they met by Judge Leon Bazile with his famous “The Almighty God” opinion. Investigate the ACLU website and the work they do today. Research the surge in private donations the ACLU has experienced since November 2016 and consider the threat to civil liberties many members of the American public feel today.
- “An unjust law is no law at all.” Included in the text is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Engage in close reading of the excerpt provided in Loving vs. Virginia and discuss as a class King’s reference to St. Augustine. How does one know whether a law is just or unjust? If a law is considered unjust, what are the actions taken by individuals or groups of people that have historically prompted legal and social change? Loving vs. Virginia includes photographs of sit-ins and the March on Washington which can be used as examples of social action against unjust laws. Pair these photographs with images from the 2017 Women’s Marches across the globe as well as the March for Science on Earth Day–April 22nd. In what ways are contemporary protesters drawing inspiration from the past to question unjust beliefs, laws, and social practices.
- Teen Pregnancy. Milie Jeter is eighteen years old when she marries Richard and they have their first son, Sidney, prior to their marriage. Discuss as a class the complexity of the Lovings circumstances not only as an interracial couple, but as couple that has a baby at a young age. Draw from your school’s sexual education curriculum to seek language for discussion of Millie’s teen pregnancy and the implication that has on her life circumstances. Consider comparing the Lovings’ story to stories of teen pregnancy on programs such as MTV’s “16 and Pregnant”. Use Fortune Magazine’s article about how the show led to a decline in teen pregnancy to discuss teen pregnancy statistics and how awareness through literature and television programs offers a form of education.
- Marriage Equality Today. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Lovings’ convictions in a unanimous decision making it illegal for states to deny couple marriage based on their interracial status. Draw parallels between the 1967 court ruling and the 2015 marriage equality case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which had a 5-4 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. Read the excerpts from the Supreme Court’s full decision as well as dissents. While Loving vs. Virginia was a unanimous decision, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision was a split court. Discuss what it means to be given equal dignity under the law and how civil rights issues continue today.
Patricia Hruby Powell’s website
Shadra Strickland’s website
Library of Congress Loving vs. Virginia Virtual Program
Loving Day website
The Loving Project website
American Civil Liberties Union Site
Loving v. Virginia ACLU page
Time Magazine Story: “What You Didn’t Know about Loving V. Virginia”
NPR Story “Is 16 and Pregnant an Effective Form of Birth Control?”
NPR Coverage of Supreme Court Ruling for Obergefell v. Hodges
People Magazine story: “The Real Story Behind Loving”
Time Magazine Story: LIFE Magazine and Loving: The Photos That Captured a History-Making Couple
Avi. (1991). Nothing but the truth: A documentary novel. Orchard Books.
Goodman, S. (2016). The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial. Ill. by E. B. Lewis. Bloomsbury. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Lewis, J., & Aydin, A. (2016). March: Book Three. Ill. by N. Powell. Top Shelf Productions. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Nelson, V. M. (2015). The book itch: Freedom, truth, and Harlem’s greatest bookstore. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Carolrhoda Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Powell, P. H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. Ill. by C. Robinson. Chronice Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Sheinkin, S. (2014). The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, mutiny, and the fight for civil rights. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Villet, B. (2017). The Lovings: An intimate portrait. Photographed by G. Villet. Princeton Architectural Press.
Wiles, D. (2010). Countdown. Scholastic.
Williams-Garcia, R. (2011). One crazy summer. Amsted. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Williams-Garcia, R. (2014). P. S. Be eleven. Amistad. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. Nancy Paulsen Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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