The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial Book Poster Image
Inspiring, educational story of 1800s civil rights heroes.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The story illuminates an often-overlooked step in the lengthy judicial battle for equal rights, a struggle that continues to this day. The "Integration Timeline" and epilogue provide even more historical details for those interested in the legacy of the cases highlighted in the book. 

Positive Messages

The central theme is, "The march toward justice is a long and twisting journey," an important message in a time of incremental change and frustration with the progress of social justice advocacy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Not only does the book depict Sarah Roberts and Linda Brown as exemplary young women who courageously served as symbols of the human cost of segregation, but it also sheds light on important allies and champions of reform in a dark period when standing up for equality under the law was considered a dangerous position. 

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial is an informative and inspirational picture book for elementary school readers interested in the story of segregation and the lengthy legal battle for civil rights and equal protection under the law. It tells the story of 4-year-old Sarah Roberts, whose family in 1847 Boston was the first to challenge racial segregation in public schools. While the topic is daunting and the historical context complex, the book navigates the mature subject with children in mind, offering an excellent opportunity to shed light on some of the less-heralded -- but equally important -- pioneers of the judicial challenge to discriminatory laws in the United States.

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What's the story?

THE FIRST STEP: HOW ONE GIRL PUT SEGREGATION ON TRIAL tells the oft-forgotten story of Sarah Roberts, a young girl whose family was the first to challenge the racial segregation of public schools, beginning in 1847 Boston. Though her lawsuit was unsuccessful, it paved the way for the integration that was won a century later in the more famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which the book also highlights and which was responsible for ending the "separate but equal" policy used to justify the exclusion of African-Americans from schools where only white children were allowed to attend. 

Is it any good?

This important and overlooked episode in civil rights history is as educational as it is inspirational. In the well-written and straightforward telling of these schoolgirls' struggle against institutional racism, social justice heroes Charles Sumner, a prominent white lawyer who endorsed Sarah's case, and Robert Morris, the first African-American lawyer to file a lawsuit and become a judge, are given their proper place in history as trailblazers who set the precedent for the legal argument for "equality under the law," a phrase Sumner coined.

Award-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis' vivid watercolors bring life to the courtroom drama and the bleak reality of racism that has for so long endured in America. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what it would have been like to be Sarah Roberts. How did her family's bravery advance the cause of integration and access to quality education? What are some other examples of individual citizens standing up for what is right -- or against what's wrong?

  • Even though Sarah lost her case, the cause she represented eventually prevailed, though it took 100 years. Why is it important to take the first step toward positive change? What else must be done in the struggle for equality, and how can you help?

  • Why was it important that the influential lawyer Charles Sumner got involved with Sarah's case? What role can white Americans play in the continued effort to guarantee equality of opportunity, education, and protection under the law for all Americans, regardless of ethnicity? 

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