Speak Up, Speak Out! The Extraordinary Life of ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm’ by Tonya Bolden, with a foreword by Stacey Abrams

c.2022, National Geographic
144 pages

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
The Truth Contributor

Sometimes, you just gotta say what you’re going to say.

Sometimes, you can’t keep quiet. You simply just have to speak up, especially when you can make a situation better or fix what’s wrong. Those are the times when it’s right to state your opinion and be firm, and in the new book Speak Up, Speak Out! The Extraordinary Life of ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm’ by Tonya Bolden, you’ll have good, strong shoulders to stand on while you’re doing it.

Author Tonya Bolden

Charles Christopher St. Hill had guts and determination.

He needed it. In early 1923, at age 22, he boarded a ship in Cuba to come to the U.S. to be a shoemaker on Long Island. He “regarded himself” as a Barbadian man and he “fell in with Brooklyn’s tight-knit Bajan community,” but he was happy to become an American.

At about this same time, Ruby Seale boarded a steamer in Barbados to come to New York City, and the two were married in late 1922. In the winter of 1924, they welcomed their first daughter, a girl they named Shirley.

For most of her life, Shirley and her sisters heard their father say, “God gave you a brain; use it.” He didn’t tolerate laziness or time-wasting – as proof, Shirley’s parents worked constantly, with a goal of buying a house and sending their daughters to college. To give them room to do that, they sent Shirley and her sisters to live with their Granny in Barbados. She was “strict” but life was wonderful. Barbados was nothing like Brooklyn!

Once back home, though, Shirley and her sisters settled down to become young ladies and “good Christians.” They attended church and school and when she graduated, Shirley was ready for college, just like her parents dreamed. She was tiny in stature but big on joining, and she was active with causes she cared about. She fell in love and married but by then, a flame had been lit in the new Mrs. Shirley Chisholm.

Says Bolden, “She had become alive to politics.”

For a kid who’s just learning about the ins and outs of politics, Speak Up, Speak Out is a great  book to have because it does double-duty: not only does it give children a historical look at what it was like to launch a political campaign some 50 years ago, but it also introduces them to the first Black woman to run for the office of President. It’s lively and relatable.

And somewhat too relaxed.

For much of the first half of this book, author Tonya Bolden repeatedly refers to Chisholm as “Shirls,” which was apparently her childhood nickname. To include it is good and makes the narrative more child-friendly; to overuse it seems somewhat disrespectful, given the rest of the story. A little less casualness would have gone a long way here.

Still, though this book is good for nine-to-14-year-olds, and adults who don’t remember Chisholm’s career or her presidential bid will find it useful to read. Find Speak Up, Speak Out! and say yes.

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For younger readers who want to know about influential women in history, Stand Up! 10 Mighty Women Who Made a Change! by Brittney Cooper, illustrated by Cathy Ann Johnson is a great book to find. With its mini-biographies and its you-GO-girl tone, it’s a winner for five-to-nine-year-olds.