Thursday, June 21, 2012
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Title: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred Taylor)
Rating: *** (3 out of 3 stars possible, "A")
Title: The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis)
Rating: ** (2 out of 3 stars possible, "B")
Audience: 5th Grade and Up
I volunteered in my 5th grader's public school library this past school year and was introduced to these 2 civil rights/race relations gems. The librarian mentioned one teacher in particular who insisted on reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to his class every year. I observed that the 4-5 class-time books my own daughter's reading/social studies teacher offered this past year seemed to focus mainly on adventure reading meant to hook the boys with limited attention spans. After hearing just a chapter of each of these books read aloud I knew I needed to offer my daughter something more convicting and important than just another Rick Riordan escapist escapade.
I keep a lot of book lists around and many of these race relations/historical fiction titles were also listed in another anthology: The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. As a Christian, not to mention a suburban white Christian, I need to better understand the persecution and lack of justice our country historically offered to minority races. I'm responsible to instill a better understanding in my children. Recently, my (outspoken) 7 year old met a young, black friend and announced "Twenty years ago your people were slaves to my people!" Obviously, I have some work to do.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the shining star of it's genre. Told from the point of view of 9 year old African-American Cassie Logan, this Newbery Medal winner contains the right mixture of humor and drama. The reader will cringe as the whites-only bus bears down daily on the black children walking to school and may object out loud at the injustice of battered, hand-me-down books these same children receive in their segregated school. Then the reader will cheer when Cassie and her brothers exact revenge on the bus, only to be reminded that revenge never trumps honest justice. The Logans are a model, devoted family. As rare landowners in rural, depression-era Mississippi, they work multiple jobs and value education to provide their children with a better future. Related books by Taylor include Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Road to Memphis and The Land.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 is Christopher Paul Curtis's first novel and reflects a blend of the author's Flint, MI family transposed on top of true events that took place in Alabama in 1963. Ten year old Kenny Watson narrates this story about his older brother, Byron, and little sister Joey. Because Byron is a bully on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent (tongue in cheek), the language is much rougher than in Roll of Thunder. The boys practice swearing and the word a** is used twice (in heated context) and d*** is used about twice as well. But family role models remain strong and "By's" parents never let him escape consequences. The plot climaxes when the family drives to Birmingham where Byron encounters the discipline of his sweet and sassy Grandmother. After two dramatic events the family returns to Michigan much changed. Sunday School is given a role in this book, including the mention of Jesus as a "saver." The events in Birmingham are somewhat clouded by supernatural intervention, but the power of the story remains. The humorous parts of this book are laugh-out-loud funny, and while it received a Newbery Honor, it is not as strong a literary contender as Roll of Thunder. Curtis has a number of quality youth novels to his credit: The Mighty Miss Malone, the Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, the Newbery winner Bud, Not Buddy.
If we ourselves have been reading and watching The Help for the last year, the least we can do is introduce our young people to the same important themes. Here are other options (some fiction, some historical, some for younger children, some for older) still on my reading list:
The Friendship-Mildred Taylor
Leon's Story-Walter Tillage
The Story of Ruby Bridges-Robert Coles (also a movie)
A School for Pompey Walker-Michael Rosen
Richard Wright and the Library Card-William Miller
Amistad Rising-Veronica Chambers
Dear Benjamin Baneker-Andrew Pinkney
Molly Bannaky-Alice McGill
George Washington Carver-Lawrence Elliott
Up From Slavery-Booker T. Washington
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) is, of course, a gold standard classic, but its mature themes are better suited for 9th or 10th grades.