AMHERST — On the left is a simple drawing of young Rosa McCauley, her black hair tied in bows, posed with her parents and baby brother at home in Tuskegee, Ala. On the right are pale riders in white hoods on dark horses, thundering hatred through the inky night. The question is not how these images can coexist, but why. They’re pages from the renowned artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s 1999 children’s book “If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks.” (McCauley was Parks’s maiden name.) And they’re as powerful an emblem as any of the divide that still cleaves the heart of American society.
But in a children’s book? Don’t be surprised. This is stern stuff, true, but it’s in good company.Ringgold’s pages, along with more than 80 other works by 41 artists, are part of “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. It’s a rich, expansive genre, spanning decades, and with softness of purpose only occasionally present. Among the dozens of illustrators here, aesthetics range from sharp-focus realism to stylized fantasy. But there’s unity in the blunt portrayal of the civil rights era’s stomach-turning racial terrors: James Ransome’s crisp, chilling image of Black diners and their white allies doused with cream, sugar, and mustard by vicious crowds at a segregated lunch counter, or Ekua Holmes’s shadowy collage of civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer shielding her head with her arms as police clubs rain down.