The story of young John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders and long-time civil rights leader, seems an appropriate topic for MLK Day. Preaching to the Chickens is a beautiful story about the boy who would grow up to become the youngest member of the “Big Six” (black leaders who led the March on Washington in 1963), and who stood at the front of the line when troopers attacked unarmed demonstrators in Selma, Alabama in 1965. “Young” John Lewis is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.
But Preaching to the Chickens doesn’t talk about John Lewis’ work as a civil rights leader. It is the story of “little John Lewis” and his life on the farm in southern Alabama.
There was “plenty of work on a farm.” Everyone had work to do, and John was put in charge of the chickens—about sixty in all.
After feeding them and cleaning their nests each day, “John would say to them ‘Enjoy this day that God has given us.’ The chickens, looking straight at him, seemed to understand.”
Church was, of course, an important part of life for John and his family. They attended every Sunday. John loved church, and found peace as the worshippers clapped and sang.
Like the ministers he heard in church, John wanted to preach, so he gathered his chickens in the yard.
John stretched his arms above his flock and let the words pour forth. The chickens nodded and dipped their beaks as if they agreed. They swayed to the rhythm of his voice.
John’s brothers and sisters couldn’t tell one bird from another. John knew every one, and he had a line of verse for each of them.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he’d say when they fought over their morning meal.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he would tell a hen who didn’t want to share, “for they shall be satisfied.”
John’s brothers and sisters eventually began calling him Preacher. “He didn’t mind. He knew that someday he’d speak before thousands. He hoped that his words would stir people’s souls and move them to action.”
Preaching to the Chickens was written by Jabari Asim. Mr. Asim has taken the story of a great civil rights icon of this century and has told just enough that a child can relate to young John and his chickens. The young reader may learn that they can pursue their dreams and grow up to do anything. The story is a fascinating look at the early days of John Lewis.
Mr. Asim’s fabulous prose is paired with E.B. Lewis’ stunning watercolor paintings. You can see the love on John’s face as he talks to his chickens, the delight shining on his face as he sings at church, and the morning light rising as he preaches to his chickens.
Preaching to the Chickens is a book to be read, to be cherished, and to be discussed with your children. It is a perfect opening to a discussion of the civil rights movement—or it can simply be a sweet story of a young boy growing up on a farm and preaching to his chickens.
Have you read any great books lately?