The Best Problem Solving of Our Summer

August 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works.

We weren’t but four nights in when the predictable happened: “Mommy, sorry to tell you this, but I actually read ahead last night after you left. And it gets really good. I kinda want to just read it on my own now.” And then I got to watch, delighted, as he carried the book everywhere for the next few days, reading it with the same gusto normally reserved for mythological monsters.

The best stand-alone novels do what most plot-driven series don’t even attempt: they allow the characters themselves—in all their glorious, complex humanity—to take center stage. More and more studies are linking reading literature to developing empathy, precisely because these rich character studies allow our child readers to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. When we inhabit, however briefly, the life of someone who looks or sounds different than us, who has a different background or orientation or set of circumstances, then it is that much harder to sit in silent (or not-so-silent) judgment when we meet someone similar in real life.

Reading realistic fiction shows our children that there is often a great deal more to people than meets the eye.

Of course, no highfalutin discussions about empathy are going to convince my ten year old to read more novels—hence, why I sometimes resort to sneaky tactics. That said, these sneaky tactics would never stand a chance if it weren’t for novels like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14) and Kelly Yang’s equally spectacular Front Desk (Ages 10-14), both of which put their protagonists in super stressful, downright near impossible predicaments, and then let us watch them problem-solve their way out. JP might be developing empathy around learning differences and mental health conditions (Lightning Girl) and immigrant experiences (Front Desk), but all he cares about it is that these protagonists are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar.

Lucy Callahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14), has not been to traditional school since she was struck by lightning four years ago in a freak accident and developed acquired savant syndrome. She is now in possession of a “supercomputer brain,” capable of solving math operations instantaneously. And not only school math. Give her a date, and she’ll instantly rattle off what day of the week it falls on. Tell her your birthday, and she’ll instantly tell you your age, right down to the second. She also has synesthesia, meaning she sees numbers as different colors.

My son, being a math enthusiast, figured this was just about the coolest thing that could happen to a person…until he read on. Just because you can solve a math problem in a few seconds doesn’t mean the rest of middle school is as easily calculated. Still, Lucy’s grandmother, her sole caretaker, insists that Lucy give public middle school a try.

At the top of the list of problems whose solutions are not readily apparent to Lucy is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, a side effect of her lightning-damaged brain and the main reason she would prefer to pass her days in the germ-controlled, non-judgmental security of her bedroom, with a chat room of Internet math geeks as her only companions. How does a girl, suddenly forced to go to traditional school, explain to her classmates why she has to sit and stand exactly three times before settling into her desk at school? Or why she whips out Clorax wipes to sanitize her desk, her bus seat, and her classroom’s doorknobs?

Lucy may not be able to hide her OCD—for which she faces no shortage of teasing—but she decides she can hide the other thing that sets her apart: her genius brain. Fearful of being seen as any more of a “freak” than she already is, Lucy figures out exactly how many math problems she needs to get wrong on her weekly quizzes to fly just below the radar. She even begins to make friends. But what happens when we become liked or accepted for someone we aren’t? What are the trade-offs when we deny the very part of us that makes us special?

Ironically, Lucy gets closer to answering these weighty questions when she solves a more concrete problem, one she initially has little interest in solving at all. Paired with two classmates for a mandatory community service project, Lucy finds herself dragged into the pinnacle of germ-infested places—an animal shelter—where her peers are bent on helping more dogs find long-term homes before they are turned over to the city to be euthanized. Lucy, it turns out, is just the Lightning Girl to calculate the statistical probability for each dog’s adoption, before turning the results into social media campaigns to help the dogs that need an extra nudge. While applying her amazing brain power to the data, Lucy inadvertently stumbles upon one of life’s most gratifying conundrums: How does helping others to solve their problems actually serve to liberate our own?

Helping others becomes a self-affirming drive of ten-year-old Mia Tang as well, a girl with a seemingly endless list of problems to solve and the protagonist of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (Ages 10-14). Mia’s family runs a motel in southern California, and Mia—when she’s not at school—gets to man the front desk. If having the run of an inn, which includes a pool and a tip jar, sounds like a pretty awesome gig for a pre-teen…read on. For one, Mia and her family are forbidden to use the pool. Or to have their own rooms (her parents sleep on the couch in the lobby). Or even to receive the full wages promised to them when they took the job.

Mia and her family are immigrants, based closely on Yang’s own family, who came to the United States from China in the 1980s as part of the most educated and skilled class of Chinese immigrants, only to find themselves reduced to menial jobs and a median yearly income of $8,000 (kudos to the fascinating Author’s Note at the book’s end). Why doesn’t Mia participate in gym class? She can’t risk injury, because her family doesn’t have health insurance. Why does she pocket her hamburger at school? To bring it back to her uncle, so he doesn’t have to dumpster-dive after his shift at the burger joint. As I witnessed Mia and her family trying to assimilate into American culture, while simultaneously making ends meet and harboring fellow immigrants, I could not stop thinking, My son has got to read this book. Everyone has got to read this book.

Fortunately, my son needed little coaxing on this one, owing to the novel’s fast pace and frequent brushes with police, loan sharks, and attempted assault. Still, Yang has done a commendable job of introducing young readers to an often grim reality through the eyes of a heroine who is anything but grim. Mia may not have the brain of a math genius, but she is exactly the energetic, resourceful, and kind problem-solver her family needs her to be. She not only looks for ways to improve the motel’s customer service, but she sets her sights on helping her community at large. Some of these challenges are easier than others. How do you wash hundreds of towels when the washing machine breaks? Throw ‘em in the bathtub, turn on the water, and start stomping. How do you help your family out of poverty? Enter an essay contest. How do you expose racial bias among the police force? Attempt to solve the whodunit yourself.

And yet, as with Lightning Girl, some problems confound even Mia, especially when they are influenced by layers of cultural bias. Why does it matter what brand of blue jeans she wears at school—or even that she wear blue jeans at all (instead of the pack-of-three floral pants that her mom sends her to school wearing)? Is the motel’s morally-bankrupt owner, the son of whom turns out to be Mia’s classmate, really as cruel as he seems? And when their relatives back in China report that they are all getting rich, why does Mia’s family refuse to leave America and go home?

If growing up is learning which problems you can solve, which are bigger than you, and which are better left unsolved, then The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Front Desk aren’t just entertainment. They can be read as how-to manuals for navigating the messiness, the cruelty, and the injustices that life sometimes deals. These stories give us bold, intelligent, complex girls as companions on this journey, and they remind us to look beyond the surface when we meet someone who seems nothing like us.

 

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Books published by Random House and Scholastic, respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

You never know what’s going to get through to a child.

Earlier this year, when I was leading a book club with my son’s class on Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, the subject of refugee camps came up. Salva, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the main character in the book, flees from South Sudan during the war and spends several years in refugee camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. Because his perilous journey on foot through violence and wild animals before reaching the camps is so graphic, the camps at first seem like a welcome respite—at least they did to my readers—despite the narrator’s insistence on their overcrowding and the loneliness Salva felt as an orphan there.

“I mean, at least they were safe there,” one of my students remarked. “Plus, a lot of them are wearing clothes without holes, so that’s good,” said another, when I brought in photos of refugee camps to help them visualize what they were reading. “Yeah, and they teach the kids stuff and let them play sports,” said another. They looked at me and shrugged. As if to say, This doesn’t seem too bad.

I was taken aback by their cavalier attitudes. Have even our youngest become desensitized to the horrors of this world?

But then we came upon a brief and somewhat vague mention in Park’s novel about the rampant sickness in the camps. “Wait, what kinds of sickness?” one of the children asked. “WAIT!” another interjected, reaching for a book about Kenya which he had been reading earlier. He opened to a picture of hundreds of sleeping bodies huddled together on the floor. “Remember when Salva couldn’t stretch out his legs because there were so many people sleeping next to him? What do you think would happen if someone threw up? Would the puke just fall onto another sleeping person? That would be SO GROSS! That would be the worst thing ever!”

I would never have predicted that vomit would be the key to unlocking these children’s empathy about the refugee experience. But, judging by the lengthy and animated conversation which followed, it did. And I’ll take it. Because, after that, these kids dove into asking questions and researching and brainstorming ways to help like it was their job.

It reminded me that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to throw as much (age-appropriate) content at our children as we can—because you never know what will stick.

Gene Luen Yang, this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (and author of the Secret Coders series, a favorite of my nine year old), has issued a summer reading challenge titled Reading Without Walls. Enthusiastically adopted by schools, libraries, and bookstores (local Alexandria folks, check out Hooray for Books’ “Reading Without Walls” Bingo Cards), the challenge asks children to choose books this summer which fall outside their comfort zone. Specifically, books featuring characters “who don’t look or live like you” or “topics you don’t know much about.”

I challenge us parents to do the same when reading to our children this summer. And I have just the book (actually, series) to start you off. The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World (Ages 6-12), by Katie Smith Milway, stunningly illustrated by Shane W. Evans, is the latest in the CitizenKid series. Intended to “inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens,” the CitizenKid books are meaty, non-fiction picture books for the older elementary child—many of them with supplemental and actionable Afterwards—with stories about ordinary people making a difference, often in neglected corners of the world. For our children, these books are the closest thing to traveling around the world and experiencing firsthand that what they see here in America is not necessarily the reality elsewhere. (One favorite, The Red Bicycle­, which traces a bicycle from America, where a young boy has grown out of it, to West Africa, where a young woman re-purposes it to carry sick people to hospitals, inspired my children last year to donate their old bikes to a local bike shop which participates in a similar program sending discarded bicycles overseas.)

Maybe it’s the timely theme of refugee camps, maybe it’s the fact that both my kids are giddy about soccer right now, or maybe it’s the dramatic, pulsating illustrations by the great Shane W. Evans (you’ll remember how much we loved Lilian’s Right to Vote), but The Banana-Leaf Ball is a particularly special addition to the CitizenKid lineup. Based on a 1993 true story similar to Salva’s, the book tells of ten-year-old Deo, who is forced to flee his East African home in the middle of the night when war breaks out. Deo becomes separated from his family, nearly starves to death, and eventually ends up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. And that’s all in the first two pages.

The rest of the book takes place in the camp, where shy, reserved Deo initially keeps to himself, anxious to avoid the explosive squabbles which frequently break out when resources are scarce. “He especially avoids Remy, a gang leader who picks fights and bullies other students into giving him whatever they have—food, pencils, paper, spoons.”

One of the hardest things, I think, for children (even adults) to appreciate is that many refugees have led full lives before they were forced from their homes with only what they could carry on their backs. They had gardens with food and chests with family heirlooms. They lived among family and friends and laughed and felt jealous of their older siblings and jumped up and down when their parent came home from the market with treats. They played sports.

We get a glimpse into what Deo’s life once looked like through his determination to salvage one particular piece of it: his love of soccer. Forced to leave behind his cherished soccer ball—handmade from carefully wrapped banana leaves and twine—Deo sets his sights on weaving a new one. When Remy steals the banana leaves out from underneath him, Deo only becomes more determined, working in secret and later hiding the finished product.

But Deo soon realizes it’s what the ball represents that is truly worth saving. At the camp’s school, a coach organizes a soccer game, choosing Deo as captain of the Shirts Team after the coach throws him the ball and Deo instinctively “catches it on one knee and bounces it knee to knee, foot to foot and down to the ground.” To Deo’s dismay, the bully Remy is also assigned to Deo’s team and immediately begins threatening Deo under his breath.

And yet, when the game begins, all differences are set aside under the common objective of scoring. The boys not only quickly discover each other’s strengths (Deo is skilled, but Remy is fast), but they capitalize on them to win. Deo kicks high to Remy, who heads the ball into the goal.

The boys’ teamwork on the field begins to extend into daily life. Remy asks Deo to teach him his soccer “tricks” outside school hours. When Deo’s ball breaks, Remy pulls the elastic band out of his own pants so Deo can repair it. Deo in turn offers comfort when Remy confides about his grief at losing his parents in the war.

Eventually, the two begin to teach other children in the camp how to make banana-leaf soccer balls.

Ball by ball, practice by practice, children who were once afraid of one another laugh together. There are still problems in the camp, but no one feels alone anymore. They are like a team, and their hope for ejo, tomorrow, is becoming hope for ubu, now.

As the story ends, we learn that Deo eventually reunites with his family and returns home when peace comes. But the camps have altered the course of his life in one critical way. Having experienced firsthand the power of play to unite and heal, a now grown-up Deo decides to coach sports in his village. In the powerful Afterward, we not only learn more about the real Deo’s story, but we see a photo of him coaching next to a close-up shot of  banana-leaf balls, which still today he teaches local children how to make.

On a personal note, while I had planned to write this post several weeks ago, it now seems all the more poignant in the aftermath of the recent shooting at the Congressional baseball practice, which took place in my own community, adjoining the very fields where my daughter played soccer this past spring. At a time when our politics feel painfully divisive, the Congressional baseball game is a shining example of the transcendent possibilities of play. May we teach our children never to run from their instinct to play, simply for the love of it, simply for the love of sharing that love with others. At our core, we are more alike than we are different.

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Book published by Kids Can Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can! I myself purchased this book–and had it signed–at a fantastic diversity panel hosted by Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC.

Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.

Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.

Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:

Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”

I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.

A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.

Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.

In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.

I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)

But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.

How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.

I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.

Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.

“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.

“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.

“But was he always brave?” I asked.

“No, not really.”

“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.

There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”

If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.

As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)

The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.

Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).

A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.

Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.

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Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Facing the Past to Better the Future (A Book Club Post)

June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. TaylorLike many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.

But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.

“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.

How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves?

How do we ensure our children will grow up in a country that celebrates differences, instead of condemns or even merely tolerates them? How do we ensure our children won’t make the same mistakes that generations of their forbearers did—and which some of their contemporaries are dangerously close to repeating?

In the midst of this unsettling time, I am once again reminded of the small but not insignificant power that we as parents have in what we choose to read with our children. Our time with them as willing listeners may be fleeting, but it is time that is immensely valuable. When we read to our children, we shape the way in which they see the world. We encourage them to ask questions of themselves and of others. And we give them a working vocabulary to navigate the undeniably treacherous terrain of life.

This past spring, I had the privilege of leading a book club with some of the children in my son’s elementary class on a book that made an indelible impression on me as a child—and which today, even as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, feels as valuable as ever.

Mildred D. Taylor’s 1976 novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Ages 10-15, possibly younger if reading aloud), tells the story of a black family’s perseverance amidst the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi in the early 1930s. Told through the eyes of the nine-year-old daughter, the story is also a coming-of-age one, as Cassie trades the innocence of her youth for a sobering understanding of the way in which race so narrowly defines her family’s place in the world.

In writing this book and the sequels that follow, Taylor set out to put down on paper the various stories that her father and other family members had passed down to her about their childhood in the South—living at a time when blacks were no longer enslaved, but were “still not free.”

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder addresses a part of our country’s past that has often been kept quiet. In writing the book, Taylor did more than simply catalog her family’s oral histories. She dared to write outside the history books. She dared to tell the kinds of stories that had been deliberately withheld from textbooks; and in doing so, she gave the world a deeper, fuller, truer portrait of the southern American experience.

You want to motivate kids to tackle a book whose reading level might initially seem daunting, or whose cover might seem like it has nothing to do with their day-to-day reality? Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that people (not that long ago) went out of their way to keep secret. Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that many people—the very perpetrators of the kind of inhumanity exposed in these stories—would like to pretend never happened.

These children were every bit as shocked and spellbound by the novel as I remember being when I read it as a child.

And that is because this is MIND BLOWING stuff.

For starters, there’s the realization that the Logan children walk over an hour—usually barefoot on the dirt road—to get to their all-black school, while the children headed towards the white school tear by in school buses whose drivers purposely kick up mud in their wake.

There’s the descriptive contrast (which we sketched out together one week) of the white and black schools: one with manicured lawns and bleacher-framed athletic fields; the other with crabgrass checked by a roaming cow.

There’s the chilling scene that commences when Cassie’s teacher makes a big fanfare of presenting each member of the class—for the first time in the history of the school—with his or her own reader. Cassie and her brother’s excitement is quickly tainted when they open the readers and learn by the ledgers inside the cover that they are actually twelfth in line to use the books—and that their turn has only come because the white school has worn down the pages to the point of disintegration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the twelfth spot is labeled “nigra.”

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And this is all from the first chapter.

What follows goes well beyond poverty and offensiveness and cuts clear into injustice, emotional cruelty, and physical violence. Black adults in the novel face burning (“the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal”), tarring and feathering, and even death—all at the hands of white community leaders. The children in the book may be on the outskirts of such attacks; and yet, they face bullying of a different sort, like when Cassie is spit on and shoved into the street by an older white girl, after refusing to address her as Miz Lillian Jean.

I’ll admit that, several times early on in the book club, there were moments when I questioned whether I had overstepped in my book selection. These were largely eight and nine year olds, while Roll of Thunder is probably more appropriately suited for eleven and twelve year olds. The vocabulary is challenging, the sentence structure complex, and on top of that there’s Southern dialect. Most significantly, there is graphic and upsetting subject matter, including offensive language. Were these children ready for this? Were they even capable of understanding it?

Since the book was first published, Roll of Thunder has been criticized and even banned in various communities, particularly in the South, for—among other things—its use of the word nigger. In the new forward to the book, Taylor defends her work: “My stories will not be ‘politically correct’…as we all know, racism is offensive.”

The benefit of reading a book like this in the context of a book club or at home with parents is that it allows for controlled, guided discussions. Early on, the children and I looked up the history of the word nigger: its derivation from the word Negro—a word initially keyed by black intellectuals out of pride and respect for an African heritage—and its bastardization in the hands of white supremacists. We had passionate debates as to whether it was appropriate to say the word in the context of sharing passages aloud from the book; some children remained steadfast in their vehemence that they would not utter the word in any context.

Despite the challenging reading level and upsetting content, week after week, the kids kept showing up.

Even more, they astounded me with their insight and their passion.

They would stop me around the neighborhood and update me on where they were in the reading, reminding me of how many days until our next meeting and asking if I was as shocked as they were about what was happening.

During book club, they would request to act out scenes, not only to audition their Southern accent, but also to make sense of various grown-up practices, like buying on credit, which play a key role in the novel’s politics.

They were fascinated by the cover—a stirring illustration by Kadir Nelson for the book’s 40th anniversary—and often speculated on Cassie’s thoughts, while simultaneously emulating her defiant arms-crossed stance.

On their own, they memorized the Negro spiritual from whence the book’s title is derived and which is cited several times as Cassie’s rallying cry. They chanted it in unison as I walked into the room one week, their voices drumming together in a steady beat, their fists pounding on the table in emphasis.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

How do I account for this kind of enthusiasm and engagement?

One word: Cassie.

By casting Cassie as the heart and soul of the story, Taylor gives the child reader a kindred spirit, one who transcends skin color or experience with prejudice. At the end of the day, Cassie is a nine-year-old child. She is fiercely protective of her siblings and deeply loyal to her self-respecting and determined family. She questions everything that is happening around her, and her unwavering sense of justice will feel familiar to any elementary child. She is both afraid and brave.

There are many other well-developed and relatable characters in the book—including Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, who was another favorite with my group—but it is through Cassie’s raw, innocent, inquisitive eyes that we are drawn firsthand into this very ugly side of American history.

Still, do not misunderstand me. Amidst the ugliness, there are plentiful moments of beauty, hope, and courage throughout the novel. There are the ways—many of them quiet and subversive, born out of cleverness as opposed to physical violence—that the different members of the Logan family wield power in the community, asserting their rights and enlisting others in the fight.

There is the love—and the deep, deep tenderness—that the Logans have for one another and the ways in which the older generation embeds in the younger ones the sacredness of family history, a reverence for the earth, and a way to preserve human dignity at all costs.

In reaction to a particularly upsetting demonstration of white power in the book, one of the book club members burst into tears and said she wished she wasn’t white. I realized we needed to take a step back and refrain from falling ourselves into the trap of vilifying an entire group of people because of their race.  And so we spent the next twenty minutes talking about the white characters in the book who do respect their black neighbors, who go out of their way to offer friendship, and who even at times speak out against others who oppose their views. It is actions, not skin color, that should command our attention and judgment.

On another day, we watched a contemporary video about the pitfalls of labels, be they race or religion or gender related. Then we watched it again.

One of the most profound realizations of the entire book club came on the heels of one of the most surprising chapters in the novel, when Cassie—after spending weeks submitting to Lillian Jean in an effort to earn her trust—lures Lillian Jean into the woods and beats her up. Some of the children admitted to being as duped by Cassie’s intentions as Lillian Jean herself, although all agreed that they figured out what was happening long before Lillian Jean did. I argued that Lillian Jean’s bewilderment at being “turned on” by Cassie is especially interesting, in light of the fact that Lillian Jean has gone out of her way to insult Cassie for most of her life.

“Why should it come as such a shock to her that Cassie would want to be mean back?” I asked the children.

There was a long pause, and then one child spoke up: “I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think Lillian Jean thought she was being mean all those times. I think she thought she was doing what everyone else like her was supposed to be doing.”

Another child jumped in: “It’s like her parents and all the other adults in her life have always been telling her, ‘you have to be mean to black people,’ ‘black people aren’t the same as us,’ and so she just thinks that’s how it is.”

And another: “It’s like my name. My parents have always called me by my name, so I know that it’s my name. If someone tried to tell me it wasn’t my name, I wouldn’t even believe them.”

May I remind you that these children are only eight and nine years old?! Oh, the wisdom that can be unearthed in our children! Because, of course, they are exactly right about the power of brainwashing, of the power that we as parents possess in the way we teach our children about the world.

After we finished the book, as we wrapped up our final meeting, I told the children I had two questions.

“Would you like to be friends with Cassie?”

The unanimous, affirmative shouts were so loud that they likely carried out to the street.

“If Cassie came over to your house for dinner, what would you want to ask her?”

Several of the children immediately responded that they would ask her how she felt about things that happened in the book—particularly during the nail-biting events of the final pages.

One girl was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, “I don’t think I would like to ask her about anything that already happened. I would like to ask her how she is enjoying the rest of her life.”

I continue to be struck by this statement—by the generosity and kindness and optimism that it reflects. (Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance to plug Mildred Taylor’s sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken.)

We all want to believe that things will get better. We all want to believe that, like the Logan family, we will do everything in our power to see that it does.

Right now, our children are still so young—still so innocent in the way they see the world. And yet, what they see and hear and read is beginning to open their eyes wider. With this widening comes not just power but responsibility: what they do with that power will depend on what examples of leadership we continue to share with them.

Let our children always have characters like Cassie to inspire them to stand up for what is right and just, to resist the danger of lumping groups together with labels, and to celebrate the rainbow of colors and individuality around them.

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Review copy by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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