A Sweet Smell of Roses follows two African-American sisters as they sneak out of their house to join the March on Washington in the summer of 1963.
A sense of excitement builds as the narrator and her little sister Minnie leave their block and join the crowd marching and singing in the street. Dr. King is referred to in the text and seen in the illustrations, but the focus is on the girls’ sense of pride and purpose in being a part of a movement larger than themselves. In the author’s note, Angela Johnson writes: The men and women we commonly hear about are not the only ones who took action against injustice and oppression. For each of the names we know, there are tens of thousands that we do not. And some of the overlooked names belong to children. A Sweet Smell of Roses is a tribute to them. The brave boys and girls who—like their adult counterparts—could not resist the scent of freedom carried aloft by the winds of change.
The simplicity of the language in this book is well-suited to the child narrator who begins many sentences with Minnie and me. Martin Luther King orates through a megaphone: “We are right. We march for equality and freedom.” Four pages later, the white crowd—children included—shout, “You are not right. Equality can’t be yours.” The author made a deliberate choice to render the fight for justice in language accessible to a small child. But in recent days the stark simplicity of this kind of talk has become all too familiar. The cries for exclusivity issuing from high-ranking individuals are instilling fear in our children. Let’s hope we can give them some sense of purpose and pride as we march on Washington later this month.
A short note about the illustrations: the black and white realism is reminiscent of the newspaper photographs and TV footage of the ’60’s. Velazquez captures the feeling of a crowd while portraying distinct individuals, and visually depicts the contrast between moving forward and being held back. The pictures add depth to the poetic free verse of the text, imbuing the struggle for equality with a child’s sense of optimism.