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We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song

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It only takes a few words to create change. It only takes a few people to believe that change is possible. And when those people sing out, they can change the world. "We Shall Overcome" is one of their songs. From the song's roots in America's era of slavery through to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and today, "We Shall Overcome" has come to represent the fight for equality and freedom around the world. This important book, lyrically written by Debbie Levy and paired with elegant, collage-style art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, pays tribute to the heroic spirit of the famous song that encompasses American history.

- Jane Addams Award Honor Book
- Bank Street College Best Book
- NCSS Notable Social Studies Book
- American Folklore Society Aesop Accolade
- Chicago Public Library Best Informational Book

“The power of song to bolster courage, combat bigotry, and effect change courses through this . . . . enlightening and inspiring book.” –Publishers Weekly

“An inviting introduction to a spirited and spiritual anthem.” –Kirkus Reviews

“An innovative capturing of history through the lens of a song and a passionate affirmation of human rights.” –Booklist

32 pages, Hardcover

First published December 17, 2013

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Debbie Levy

37 books59 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 104 reviews
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,214 reviews104 followers
September 24, 2020
While as a story in and of itself Debbie Levy's We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (about how We Shall Overcome became one of the main anthems of the American Civil Rights Movement) is indeed inspirational and yes, also features a most essential and uplifting message that one can often achieve more lasting and positive societal changes by using non violent methods of protest (including making use of the power of song, especially if a song has like We Shall Overcome in its lyrics both a strong undercurrent of peaceful solidarity and also an equally heavy-duty adherence to proudly standing against injustice and for equality non violently but always also without fear), personally, I have actually found We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song just a trifle disappointing and certainly not really as according to the title of the book, in any manner the entire story of We Shall Overcome as a song.

For even though the book title seems to indicate and strongly suggest that Debbie Levy's narrative will or rather would be showing the general and full genesis of We Shall Overcome and how it has evolved from its 19th century beginnings into the 20th century song of protest and solidarity we know and love today, the song that for many of us in fact represents the symbol for fighting FOR ALL KINDS of different equalities (racial equality, social equality, political equality, gender equality etc.), the author's presented text in We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song really (and in my opinion) kind of only shows ONE single incarnation of We Shall Overcome. And while I certainly do think it is of the utmost importance to present said incarnation and how during the Civil Rights Movement, We Shall Overcome was widely used to musically combat racial bigotry, to fight for civil rights for ALL Americans regardless of ethnic background, this truly is just one tale of many regarding how We Shall Overcome was used and reused as a weapon and tool of protest and ALL of these scenarios are to and for me as much and as equally the so-called backstory as the development of We Shall Overcome into an American Civil Rights Movement anthem.

And yes, while I do consider Debbie Levy's presented narrative engagingly told and imbued with very powerful positives (and also find Vanessa Brantley-Newton's accompanying illustrations visually bright and delightfully integrated), personally I do have to consider that according to the book title, according to We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, I rather think that Debbie Levy has not really presented her text as to what the book title implies. For in my opinion, she indeed ONLY seems to focus her words on one part of the history We Shall Overcome, an important focus, for certain, but one that should really be presented in conjunction with all of the other parts of the whole (how We Shall Overcome was not only used as a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement, but that before the Civil Rights Movement, the song was equally collectively sung during strikes and later also during political protests around the world, including behind the Iron Curtain, and no, just relegating these instances to the supplemental time-line in We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song is for me not really sufficient, as I strongly do believe that this all should definitely have been as much part of Debbie Levy's main narrative as that We Shall Overcome became one of the main musical symbols of the American Civil Rights protests).

And also, finally, do we really need to have We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song end with Obama and him even being featured as almost some kind of unassailable conquering hero? For while I certainly consider Obama's presidency as generally positive (and especially considering what has come after him), well, Obama definitely was like ALL politicians not in any manner ever perfect (and this in particular during his second term) and yes, the quasi hero-worshipping of Obama that is to and for my eyes depicted by both Debbie Levy's words and Vanessa Brantley-Newton's picture of masses of Americans wildly cheering for Obama who is also standing above and beyond everyone like someone on a pedestal, that truly feels much too political, and really also to and for me as a person of German background as kind of potentially creepy and uncanny.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
9,821 reviews418 followers
March 4, 2021
Almost more of a history book, but it does make it clear that music has power. This anthem was known, and used, around the world, and was sung at Obama's first inauguration. Excellent after-matter, the only thing missing is sheet-music of the song. The notes talk briefly about the evolution of the song in its different forms.

Illustrations appealing and inclusive.

(Remember the good old days when every primary teacher could pick out a tune on the piano, and therefore many children's books had the musical notation included?)
Profile Image for Kasper.
361 reviews16 followers
July 26, 2018
This is less a comment on the book, which is perfectly fine, and more a comment on the persistence of writers, especially writers writing for young children, that the election of Obama somehow marks the end of the United States -- our -- struggle against racial injustice. It didn't. It was never going to go (though God, I wish it had.) This is not entirely fair to this particular book, which does include a final page that people still sing "We Shall Overcome" as a declaration of humanity against all sorts of injustice (though it does not particular say racial injustice, which is the point of this book). I'm still burnt out though, in reading books that believe everything was/is fine now that Obama has been elected -- that that last glass ceiling for African Americans had been shattered. (And again, God almighty, I wish it had.)

The illustrations in this are lovely, as are the way the text is oriented against the lyrics of the song.
Profile Image for Amy Rae.
912 reviews40 followers
October 16, 2015
To the surprise of no one, I do like presenting children with music history whenever possible, especially when it's the history of popular music. We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song is fairly serviceable; I think the illustrations are pretty, and I like that the different iterations of the lyrics are highlighted in the text.

There were two things I didn't care so much for. First, the illustrations for the page talking about how the song has spread to numerous other countries appear to feature only Indian characters in fairly stereotypical dress. I would have liked to see people from a variety of backgrounds pictured, to better reflect what the text is saying. Second, the shape of the "story" sort of implies that since Barack Obama's election, the message of the song is more relevant to other countries and cultures. While the United States of America has improved since the 1950s, it still has a ways to go.

I think this book is a useful one, but I would definitely include some discussion around it.
Profile Image for Emily.
305 reviews6 followers
September 19, 2020
Honest and beautiful, it made me cry like a baby. I loved its willingness to acknowledge the components of racism explicitly and I appreciated the time line in the back, alongside a bibliography and a suggested reading list.
Profile Image for Tammi Peterman.
24 reviews3 followers
April 24, 2015
1. Text to World: The text explores the realities of the plight of African American since the time of slavery. It shows that while people may look different we are all humans capable of acquiring the skills needed to be productive citizens. It reminds you not to judge based on color but to embrace peoples differences for the community.

2. The piece begins in slavery times as slaves sang "to soothe the hurt, to fight the cruelty" and moves quickly through the Civil War to the mid-20th century, when African-Americans began protesting unfairness, hate, and violence, and brought a church song, 'I Will Overcome,' to the streets. It shows the challenges African Americans have faced and how people have worked to overcome those challenges. The author counterbalances the stark inequalities with brightly colored collage like images that portray Americans of all colors standing and singing together. The piece shows cultural change and illustrates that progress has been made but there is still work to be done. It shows students that we are all humans and can work for the benefit of each other without tearing down entire populations.

3. Blooms Taxonomy
Remember: List two other countries that used this song to overcome inequalities.
Understand: What does "we shall overcome" mean?
Apply: Think about the workers in the cafe's during the sit-ins. What would you have done if you were a worker or an owner of one of the restaurants.
Analyze: What was the theme of this book?
Evaluate: Would you have gone to see the freedom singers perform?
Create: What can you do to continue to make change and eliminate inequalities.
Profile Image for AJourneyWithoutMap.
791 reviews74 followers
January 8, 2014
The song “We Shall Overcome” is almost synonymous with the unquenchable human spirit for freedom, liberty and justice. Down through the ages, it has inspired and motivated teeming millions and was a centerpiece in almost all social justice movements. Its relevance and power to change lives has not diminished a bit, and remains as strong and vibrant today as it was when first sung. It has become a worldwide anthem.

Debbie Levy, who authored many meaningful and inspiring books like The Year of Goodbyes and Slaves on a Southern Plantation, has done a commendable job in bringing out this new picture book. We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, published by Disney-Jump is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long, long time. Though meant for children 6 – 8 years, and just 32 pages long, I was totally enamored with the book and the expressive illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

Debbie provides historical context for the song, and shows how it inspired people to keep the faith. The illustrations highlight important timeline of the song in history. One valuable guide offered by the book is the inclusion of websites which contain recordings of the song.

If you have been inspired by the song in the past or had sung it, you will love this book.
Profile Image for Barbara.
13.3k reviews276 followers
November 18, 2013
Words and music have the power to change lives, and this picture book gives its much-deserved due to "We Shall Overcome," the song that came to be associated with the civil rights movement. The author provides historical context for the song as well as describing how it inspired protesters in this country and others to keep the faith and keep marching and protesting. The vibrant illustrations that seem to based on collages, highlight moments when the song assumed importance such as during the March on Washington, as well as when it moved into other countries and inspired their citizens to rally against injustice. The back matter includes a timeline of the song, touching East Germans, black South Africans, Bengalis, Czechs, and South Koreans. The book even offers websites which contain recordings of the song. This title will fit very nicely in a civil rights text set or one about the power of words.
October 6, 2015
Music is a strong, emotional bond for most people and is ever present in this story about the song, "We Shall Overcome." This book is about a song that has brought people together through its strong, courageous, and powerful words. It's roots began in the time of slavery but the actual song was brought from the church to the people of America during the Civil Rights Movement. It was then carried across the oceans to other countries where people were fighting for a better life. It became a song people sang across the world to celebrate global protests against all kinds of injustice. When President Obama was elected, the people sang it in exhilaration of an African-American becoming president.

With its pages full of colorful people and the beautiful words of the song flowing throughout, this story is one for all ages. It demonstrates just how powerful words and a tune are; how they can cause change.
Profile Image for tracy lou.
107 reviews6 followers
March 4, 2017
My neoliberal heart loves this, but my brain picks it apart. I would definitely classify this as an Obama book. That is probably a spoiler.
27 reviews
November 3, 2021
We Shall Overcome has received the Aesop Award, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award, and a few other book awards. Everyone has heard of the old, civil rights/gospel song, "We Shall Overcome" (Horton el al., 1960). But do you know "The Story" behind the song? Well, Debbie Levy and Vanessa Brantley-Newton did an excellent job of bringing the inspiring story of this song to life for many readers - young and old. The literary elements containing America's history of conflict, with the attitude of the enslaved and others, cause readers to be or feel compassion, empathy, and evokes consideration of all human beings. The illustrations are what I call a TRUE picture of American history and our now multicultural society. We are the UNITED States of America, and the keywords that makes this special book a centerpiece to my library is UNITY! WE! Shall Overcome -- some day. Because WE are ONE nation under GOD!
24 reviews
October 27, 2021
I found We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song on the Aesop Winner Accolades list. This book talks about the history of a song, how it changed little by little, and how it empowered movements. This picturebook is a good explanation of how a small amount of hope can blossom into an entire movement. We Shall Overcome brings to the table the concept of hope put into a digestible form for children and adults. The picturebook uses beautiful colors and art to captivate the reader as they slowly move through the histroy of the song. This book can be used during black history month or a general history class to showcase the struggles of black people and the struggles of others in their respective countries. Whether you use this book as a read-aloud or use some of the words from the song as an activity.
Profile Image for Alana.
29 reviews2 followers
February 21, 2019
Awards: None
Grade level: K-3
Summary: Each pages has song lyrics and historical information (it’s like a 3 in 1 book!). Learn about slavery and how people lived during this challenging time in American History.
My Review: I love how this book both has the song lyrics and a story that teaches about slavery. Music unites people together and can empower them.
In Class: This book can be used during Black History Month and even in the general music class. Students can learn to sing We Shall Overcome and perform it during a concert/in class concert. Students can also write about something that they have overcame, share about a time that they were not afraid, or about a time when they witness racism.
Profile Image for Margaret Boling.
2,372 reviews36 followers
July 7, 2022
7/6/2022 ~ Consider this book to be a biography of the song and how it has evolved over two centuries. The verse was occasionally clunky, and the illustrator's style makes all the characters, including historical adults, appear childlike.

Partner this book with We Shall Overcome by Bryan Collier.
Collier's characteristic, stunning, and detailed collage illustrations pair the lyrics of the song We Shall Overcome with a girl as she walks with friends to a Black Lives Matter rally. While the modern characters are in full color, the background characters portray historic events from the Civil Rights activism. In the back matter, Collier explains each event he chose to portray. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5...
10 reviews
November 19, 2017
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the Civil Rights movement through history all the way up to President Obama. It touches on events from the Civil War, protests at lunch counters, and the Voting Rights Act.
I chose this book because it is such an important message and the book is written in kid friendly language that also shares a beautiful song.
This historical fiction book is great for grades 1-3, but could be used many years beyond.
This book could be used in the classroom in many ways. It's a wonderful lesson of history with the theme of fairness. It could also be a great way to integrate music into the lesson as well.
Profile Image for Rachael Fricke.
50 reviews
November 5, 2018
The story of a song. The words of the song "We Shall Overcome" flow through the pages and connect with the story line. From fighting for change, to working for change, to seeing change happen. The story and the song send a message to the reader that change can happen, and we will overcome. In a world where we are still fighting racial injustices, this book gives hope for generations that one day, We Shall Overcome. A wonderful story, one we've all heard before, but told in a children's picture book really brings to light that even children aren't free from facing the racial injustices some of their ancestors fought hard to eradicate.
58 reviews1 follower
April 3, 2019
A few words can create change and in this book, it exemplifies how a song can become a representation for equality. The artwork was captivating and the portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama were beautiful. What an amazing book to share with all students especially African American students who are young and entering a world where their equality has been fought for and continues to be. It's important for young readers to be proud of where they came from, their ancestors and their differences. This book celebrates diversity and reminds us to always fight against injustice and bigotry.
60 reviews
March 7, 2018
I like how this book went straight to the point. I like how it talked about the past and present. I really enjoyed how it got the message out that even after the Civil Rights, black people were still being mistreated. I also liked how they explained that although many white people treated black people poorly, there were white people who would protest with them. I also liked that they included President Barack Obama. This helped show how far we had come as a country. Definitely would use in my classroom.
Profile Image for Dave Lester.
360 reviews2 followers
January 22, 2020
A beautifully illustrated and written children's book centering around the song "We Shall Overcome" through the trials and tribulations faced by African-Americans in America. Very beneficial reading this to my kids and introducing them to the evils of slavery and oppression. The book is bold and communicates some of the ugly history but does not go into graphic detail. The ending of the book has a historical timeline of when the song has been sung as an anthem of hope during some of the bleakest times for people.
December 5, 2017
This book uses a song that is associated with Civil Rights, and it follows the history of African Americans in this country through the Civil Rights Movement to today. It is an important story for children because it looks at the past and how far we have come as a country. It is also important to help recognize that we still have a ways to go, and this book help shows that. It is just a great story that empowers the African American community and the illustrations help showcase this journey throughout history.

Levy, D. (2013, December 17). We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song. New York, NY: Jump At the Sun.
Profile Image for Claire DM.
140 reviews4 followers
March 21, 2019
Beautiful and whimsical, yet serious drawings, wonderful prose. Great history that pulls no punches, could do a better job with the “things are all better now” narrative as it relates to the struggle for the African American struggle for equality. But overall an more honest age appropriate book on race relations for young children, with the story told thru the journey of the song We shall Overcome.
23 reviews
December 6, 2019
This book has a strong message. I feel, in the society we live in today, that is important. So many children need to experience this book. The song is something that has been a part of history and this paid a great tribute to that history. Having an African American child, there needs to be more books that promote strength. There is more to the African American people than slavery. I would have this book in my personal library.
36 reviews
July 18, 2020
We read this today, and all of my kids (ages 8, 5, 3) were completely drawn in to this story. The illustrations are beautiful, and it highlights some of the main times in American History with the fight for racial equality and justice. It was also neat to see my kids recognize some of the scenes (like the restaurant sit-in) and it gave me a chance to expand on some of the others that we haven't talked about before. I loved everything about this.
12 reviews
October 13, 2020
This is a great book for elementary readers learning about a huge part of history, slavery. This is an easy way to help students to understand how the slaves were treated even after slavery ended. This book also talks about how the slaves and African Americans pushed through their tough times with a song. This book gives a message to all people to fight for what they believe in (peacefully) and they will see change. The book also shows the past and the present.
Profile Image for Kris.
3,104 reviews70 followers
March 15, 2023
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I like the idea of tracking the power a song had on a movement, but I think this fails to do that. The narrative is a bot too vague for the intended audience, assuming a knowledge of various civil rights events that a kid probably wouldn't have. And because it tries to be poetic, it comes across as vague. It's cute, and it's not a bad book by any means: I just think it could have been much better.
59 reviews
June 15, 2017
This book is about African Americans overcoming the hardships they had to deal with during segregation. It is in song saying "we shall overcoming" over and over again, through everything they had to endure.

The media here seems to be water color.

I would like to teach this book all singing the song together as a class.
42 reviews
November 19, 2017
Historical fiction. 2013. This book is about a song associated with the Civil Rights Movement. The pictures present the words of the song, showing what it was slaves had to overcome. Through music, this song in particular, people of color were able to unite and fight for their freedom. Racism and slavery are both addressed. This a must read in the classroom.
Profile Image for Natasha.
28 reviews
February 3, 2018
Lia's review: "I really like this book! It is so great. It says how some people are really mean to each other because they have different skin colors, but that is not nice at all. Everybody has different skin, but we should all be nice to everyone because it doesn't matter about your skin. Also, I really love this song. We learned it in music class."
Profile Image for Jo Oehrlein.
6,327 reviews9 followers
June 24, 2018
A book in 3 parts.

The first two parts are interwoven -- there's the history of the song, but there are verses to the song on each page (almost impossible to read without singing!).

It's amazing to me how powerful this song has been across time and different situations.

The last part of the book is a timeline that gives more details and shows how the song grew to what it is today.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 104 reviews

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