July 06, 2018

Meet Viola Desmond (Scholastic Canada Biography)

Written by Elizabeth MacLeod
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 6-9
August 2018

The story of Viola Desmond is now part of the history books. You know that's got to be true when the Google Doodle for today, July 6, is honouring and celebrating her birth in 1914.  Many internet searches today will begin with a quick look at the ten panels that chronicle her life in that Doodle but young readers can learn about her life in greater depth in Meet Viola Desmond, one of the first in the new Scholastic Canada Biography series.

Though Elizabeth MacLeod touches on Viola Desmond's beginnings as part of a large family and the determination she had ("when Viola made up her mind to do something, she did it"; pg. 2), motivating her to open her own hair salon for black women who weren't allowed in those used by white women, developing her own hair creams and face powders, and starting a beauty school, the story centres around the injustice perpetrated against her as a black woman.
From Meet Viola Desmond by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
The story is sadly familiar. While travelling on business, Viola Desmond's car runs into mechanical problems and she is waylaid in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.  To bide the time, she goes to the movie theatre. But, unlike theatres in Halifax where black people could sit wherever they liked, this theatre gives Viola Desmond a ticket for the balcony. When Viola Desmond insists on sitting on the main floor, willing to pay the additional cost, the management calls the police who forcibly drag her out to jail. In court the next day, she is found guilty and fined, and though "No one said anything about the colour of Viola's skin...everyone knew that's what this case was really about." (pg. 19)
From Meet Viola Desmond by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
In the aftermath, Viola Desmond reconsidered her desire to just put the incident behind her, and with the support of many people, including the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Viola Desmond went to court to fight for her rights.  But the judges refuse to hear her case, citing her delay in bringing it to court.  Still, this event advanced the cause for ensuring the rights for black persons and ultimately for justice for Viola Desmond.
From Meet Viola Desmond by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Because here is so much more to this remarkable woman's story, Elizabeth MacLeod, a highly effective writer of non-fiction of history, goes on to elaborate on Viola Desmond's story beyond the unfairness of both court cases. We learn of her sister Wanda's efforts to bring attention to Viola's story through speaking engagements, of the province's apology to Viola and all black people in Nova Scotia about the unfair treatment they endured, of the pardon bestowed on Viola Desmond long after her death, and of the new ten-dollar bill that features her image.  Viola Desmond's story and her achievements in illuminating the injustices that black Canadians experienced is one for the history books and one relevant for teaching about social justice, empowerment, determination and so much more.

The story is told well but told better with Mike Deas's illustrations. The ink and watercolour artwork may give the impression of a comic book with characters speaking via speech bubbles, but there is nothing silly or simple about Mike Deas's art. The settings give the flavour of the 1940s and other times, and the people, from their clothing and hairstyles, shapes and colour, are realistic and varied. Illustrating Viola Desmond's story this way will draw readers in and hold their attention while telling an important story that shouldn't have happened in the first place but which hopefully helped promote justice for all.

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