Title: A Sweet Smell of Roses
Author: Angela Johnson
Illustrator: Eric Velasquez
Publisher: Aladdin Paperbacks
Publication Date: 2005
Audience: The intended audience is agest 5 – 8. However, the theme of this book, the illustrations and the storyline makes this book suitable and attractive to people of all ages. It functions very well as a book to be used to read to young children; it can operate as a challenge for newer readers because of the vocabulary used and it works well as both a conversation starter or lesson for adolescents through adults. The audience will broaden still when you look to expanding the audience beyond age. With a theme centered on the Civil Rights Movement, any and all nationalities could benefit. It can be used to help inspire the young and old to find and use their voice and/or stand up for right. It can be used to challenge and resolve conflict.
Summary: A Sweet Smell of Roses is the story of two young sisters who sneak out of the house in order to be part of a civil rights march in their town. The two young girls get to witness amazing things, like getting to see and hear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to clap and sing with the crowd they march with, and to be carried on the shoulders of some members of the crowd as they travel through the streets. They also get to experience the negative aspects of the march, in the form of words of hate that are yelled at the group along the way. By the end of the book, they make their way back home to an anxious mother who is very happy to see them. Throughout the book, we hear about the sweet smell of roses that is constantly in the air.
Central literary elements at work in the book: The book is told from a first person perspective which seems to be that of the eldest sister. We never learn her name, but learn her younger sister is named Minnie. The wonderful illustrations are done in an antique style of black and white with each pairing of pages containing a little splash of red. These splashes of red show up are in the little ribbon around Minnie’s bear’s neck and in the red of the flag as it appears on several pages and in the red of the roses that are mentioned throughout. I think, although red is so often connected to blood and love, I see the use of the red ribbon on Minnie’s bear, for example, presented a symbol of innocence. When red appears on the flag, it can be seen as a symbol of pride in a country that is shared, even with some who hate. There is a page where both the bear and the flag are illustrated, however, only the bear is represented by the red ribbon. Could it be that innocence outweighs pride? It is in this same scene where the crowd is pictured shouting at the marchers “You are not right. Equality can’t be yours.” Innocence immediately comes to mind, especially when viewing the girl’s faces, which show confused sadness, rather than the anger that clearly reflects on many of the faces of the marchers. Even the sweet smell of the roses seems to stand as a testament to innocence.
How does the book present gender, race, culture, etc.: The book, which is dealing with the theme of the civil rights movement, paints a picture of inclusion. While there are pictures of people whom the reader is not sure of their ethnicity, such as the milkman, the mailman and the men in the market; its author is intentional in showing men, women and many people of different races in the group of marchers.
Theological Conversation Partners: Themes that could be made part of a theological discussion around A Sweet Smell of Roses would include the verses that discuss loving your neighbor as yourself. Taking into account that the book is written from the perspective of a child, part of a theological discussion could include the role and responsibilities that children can and should take, not only in their religious life, but that they can play a role in the much larger aspects of our world. Along this theme, Psalms 129:2 would be an excellent partner.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Why do you think the children had to sneak out of the house? What danger do you think they could have faced? Would those dangers be different for our children today? Why or why not?
- Once they reach the crowd and the marchers, the children are swept into the excitement of the march. Imagine yourself experiencing this scene through the eyes of a child. What may have stood out to you? How do you think the children felt about those people yelling at the marchers?
- What was the role of the “sweet smell of roses” that was mentioned throughout the book?
- The mother was happy, not angry, when the children returned home. Why do you think this is?
- What role, if any, do you think God fills in this book?
This review was written by Union Presbyterian Seminary student LaDonna Harrison.