3 Fantastic Novels in Preparation for African-American History Month

When I was younger, I spent nine years living in Clemmons, a little town outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After my family moved to Connecticut when I was in fifth-grade, I remember looking back on my experiences in elementary and middle school and thinking, “Wow. That was different.” While the public schools my brothers and I attended weren’t officially segregated, they certainly were in spirit. White children were afforded all the privileges while kids of other races were basically left to fend for themselves, if not literally prevented from receiving any sort of passable education. Sometimes I wonder where my friends from that time ended up and how their lives could’ve been different if given the chance at equal opportunity early on.

I haven’t been back to my childhood hometown except for a brief visit with a friend who was teaching at UNC Chapel Hill at the time. I did the usual drive-by of my old house, the Piggly Wiggly, a few of my favorite bookshops and restaurants, the wheat fields I used to play in, and my old schools. Most of the buildings are still there and I hear there’s a thriving art and foodie scene in Winston-Salem. I suspect the sentiment in the school system has changed as well to keep up with the times. I sure hope it has.

But, I digress! Back to books!

This year’s crop of African-American History Month titles has much to offer. In advance of February, I thought I’d tell you about three stellar novels that were published earlier this month. They literally blew my proverbial socks off.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood. A former librarian and children’s book reviewer, Scattergood learned a thing or two about what types of books speak to kids. Glory Be, her first novel, sings with sass and charm as its 11-year-old (white) protagonist Glory storms through its pages with nothing but a good heart and a whole lot of something to prove. Set in the Hanging Moss, Mississippi, in 1964, the story covers a volatile time in the civil rights era. Water fountains, pools, and restaurants are still segregated. “Colored” maids who do all the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids are still the norm in most households. But slowly, very slowly, there are changes afoot—and some folks in Hanging Moss aren’t happy about it. As Glory soon discovers, they’re appalled by the idea of sharing their pool with “people who don’t bathe” and their library with “people who don’t read.” When Glory befriends a new girl (also white) from “up North” whose mother is a Freedom Worker, and writes a no-holds-barred letter to the town paper about how hateful some members of the town are being toward the newcomers (she likens their prejudice to “dog doo”), she experiences the power of bigotry firsthand. History lessons aside, there’s plenty of teenybopper fare to go around in the book. Glory certainly can’t stop gossiping. And growing up under the shadow of her newly-in-love older sister . . . It’s the pits. Bonus material: I recommend listening to this interview with Augusta Scattergood on NPR. She reads passages from the book and talks about her inspiration for writing it.

Crow by Barbara Wright. Wright pens novels for adults (Easy MoneyPlain Language) but her first foray into spinning stories for a younger audience is so infused with atmosphere and meaty background information, you’d think she’d written historical-fiction for kids before. Set smack dab in the Jim Crow South in 1898, the book revolves around 12-year-old Moses Thomas and his family who live in Wilmington, North Carolina, during a time when racial tensions in the town are heating up. His exemplary father, a professional journalist for the Daily Record (“the only Negro daily in the South) and one of the city’s first African-American alderman, serves as the moral backbone of the story, teaching Moses that a solid upbringing, education, and hard work will inevitably lead to a level playing ground between races. In the short-term, Moses discovers this to be untrue. The still-segregated public utilities and schools and the daily discrimination he experiences, such as the time he tries to enter a local bike shop’s slogan contest and is refused because of the color of his skin, make it difficult for him to believe there will ever be such a thing as racial equality in the South. When a Daily Record editorial stirs up dissention in the community and a group of white supremacists set fire to the newspaper’s office in return, Moses and his father are thrust right into the heart of the conflict. Wright’s descriptions of the Wilmington race riots, while fictionalized to a certain extent, are downright riveting, imbued with just the right balance of potent story and historical fact. A natural choice for the classroom. Bonus material: On Wright’s website, there are tons of excellent ancillary materials for educators, including lesson plans, videos, and links to additional reading. (Note: These materials are best for advanced middle-grade classrooms, but can be adapted/leveled down accordingly with a little extra effort.)

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. In September of 1957, a group of African-American teens later referred to as the “Little Rock Nine” changed the face of history by attending the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. A year later, Little Rock’s governor shut down the public high schools in the area to protest desegregation. The book takes place within that year. On the first day of class at West Side Junior High, smart but excruciatingly shy 12-year-old Marlee befriends a new girl named Liz. She’s immediately drawn to Liz’s spunk and outspoken personality and suspects correctly that Liz might be able to help her come out of her shell. But when Liz stops coming to school and her racist classmates discover the reason—she’s been trying to pass as a white girl—the verbal abuse and despicable behavior they unleash is shocking, although not surprising. The girls’ efforts to maintain their friendship despite ongoing threats is a testament to their courage and faith in doing what’s right. Levine (The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) does an excellent job portraying all sides of the integration debate by allowing the people who oppose it just as much air time as those who support it. Reading about Marlee’s involvement in the WEC (theWomen’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools) and STOP (Stop This Outrageous Purge Campaign) is a valuable way of teaching kids about real events while immersing them in a truly powerful story. (Note: The significance of the title? Nearby Marlee’s house, there’s a zoo where Marlee and Liz often meet to look at the lions. Of course, it’s also the perfect metaphor not only for Marlee’s and Liz’s courage, but for all the people in their community (and in history) who fought for justice in a violent time.)

 Originally posted on  B&N’s Letter Blocks blog January 26, 2012

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