________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 8. . . .October 26, 2012


People Who Said No: Courage Against Oppression.

Laura Scandiffio.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2012.
168 pp., pbk. & hc., $14.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-382-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-383-3 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Social reformers-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Dissenters-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Political activists-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



[Aung San] Suu Kyi listened to their stories with concern, but she kept her thoughts to herself. In Oxford, Burma’s problems had seemed so far away! She felt herself blush at the memory of her own small plans to help her country: maybe start a library or a student exchange with England. No, something far greater was needed here. But what could she do? She had responsibilities: now forty-two years old, she had two sons back in England, waiting, along with their father, for her to return. So she listened, saying little, only asking each person how she could help in practical ways. “Just like her father,” older people began to say, nudging one another.


One of Scandiffio’s previous works for young readers examined the nature of tyrants. Now she turns her thoughts to people who live by their conscience and dare to speak out against oppression, racial discrimination, dictatorships and injustice. Sadly, there continues to be and has been no shortage of human rights abuse, genocide, rape as a weapon of warfare, brutal dictatorships and displacement of peoples by new settlers or corporate interests that demand examination. In People Who Said No, Scandiffio focuses upon the stories of five individuals and two group movements that took stands against unjust laws and leaders during the last seventy years across six continents. In Nazi Germany, opposition to Hitler’s dictatorship and his regime’s persecution of Jews and others was systematically crushed. Despite the danger, Hans and Sophie Scholl, siblings studying at the University of Munich in 1942 and 1943, and a small group of friends dared to encourage dissent with leaflets signed “White Rose.” They called for “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence.” The core members were all executed, and other friends and supporters were imprisoned for their dissent. Today, the White Rose and its members stand out as one of the best known German movements that opposed the actions of Hitler’s government.

     Rosa Parks is an excellent example of the anti-segregation and civil rights movements in the United States. Versions of her story are well known. Scandiffio does a fine job explaining the context of Parks’ dissent within the broader plans of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to challenge segregation laws in the courts. The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-1956 and related court cases made her a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement. Peaceful protest and legal challenges proved to be an effective means of bringing about the end to unjust laws and practices.

     Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant physicist who helped the Soviet Union develop thermonuclear weapons. Afterwards, he realized the dangers of the nuclear age and began to advocate for “peaceful coexistence” since warfare, especially nuclear warfare, should never be used to settle disputes. His marriage to an outspoken human rights activist, Elena Bonner, in 1972 was influential in his decision to speak out for the human rights of Soviet dissenters, many of whom were exiled to remote parts of the country, institutionalized or executed. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, he was exiled to the military city Gorky that was closed to foreigners. Following seven years of exile for Sakharov, the new leader, Mikhael Gorbachev, restored Sakharov’s freedom.

      Helen Suzman was a member of the South African Parliament for 36 years. For 13 years, she was the only “progressive” Member of Parliament that sought the end of apartheid policies. She was a tireless advocate for change and used her privilege as a Member of Parliament to visit Nelson Mandela in prison and to question members of the government about the treatment of the Blacks, their living conditions, and the brutal treatment of those arrested. Exchanges in the legislature could be reported by newspapers that faced censorship constraints if they covered these topics in other news reports. Suzman lived long enough to see the end of apartheid in South Africa. Her electorate deserves credit for supporting such a strong advocate for a more just society.

     When Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he had a record of being a conservative who did not support priests who advocated for the peasants in their quest for political and economic reforms. However, the murder of a reformist priest with a couple of his parishioners forced Romero to reconsider his stance. The time had come to speak out against El Salvador’s military government and the super-rich elite and their condoning of persecution and murder of reformers. He sought peaceful change but was assassinated in 1980.

     When Suu Kyi returned to Burma/Myanmar from England to be with her dying mother, she had no plans of staying and taking up the cause of the oppressed people striving for a return to democracy and the end of the military dictatorship. For more than two decades, she lived almost constantly under house arrest yet continued and continues to advocate for peaceful reconciliation and reform.

     The Arab Spring of 2011 and, more pointedly, the uprising in Egypt that saw the end of the corrupt dictatorship of President Mubarak is the final case study. It demonstrates the evolving nature of resistance as students and others turned to social media such as Facebook and the Internet to help organize demonstrations. The evolution of Egyptian government and leadership remains a work in progress, but the dramatic turn of events brought to the world’s attention the desire of young people in particular to end corruption, injustice and their lack of voice in government. Educated youth want jobs and opportunities to share in the wealth of their countries.

     Most of the studies are drawn chiefly from one to three memoirs by the subjects themselves and biographies identified in a bibliography. Scandiffio uses some imagined conversation to dramatic effect. The text is very informative and well-grounded in a historical context. Sometimes contextual information is presented on separate pages presented like a briefing folder in a confidential file. The graphics are appropriate and supplement photographs of the subjects and scenes from their times. Also included is a detailed index.

     People Who Said No can be used by teachers exploring values, ethics or character education.


Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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