I am participating in a group of Twitter friends that are reading, sharing and responding to recent middle grade novels. Hopefully, we will be able to find books that will excite the young readers in our classrooms and help us to teach important literacy skills and concepts in the coming year. Our group's handle is #BookRelays if you would like to see what we're reading and how we respond to these books.
As a result of my participation in this group, I had the opportunity to read an ARC of this awesome novel by Linda Williams Jackson. This is a very powerful book with an important story that needs to be shared with young people. More than any other book I've ever read on the civil rights movement, this book pulled me right into the world of African American sharecroppers living in Mississippi in 1955. Told from the point of view of thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter, who lives with her grandparents, her younger brother, and her cousin in a small house on a cotton plantation, Jackson helped me understand and experience the pain, fear, anger, and emotional turmoil of African American families living during this time of change.
At the beginning of the book, Rose's mother leaves with her new husband and their children for Chicago, while Rose and her brother Fred have to stay behind with Ma Pearl and Papa. Rose has to work very hard in the cotton fields instead of attending school, while dramatic changes are starting to swirl around her.
As more and more African Americans attempt to become registered voters, they are becoming the victims of violence and brutality at the hands of groups like the Klan and the White Citizens' Council. The murder of a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, for allegedly whistling at a white woman, brought publicity, the NAACP, and a famous trial into the lives of these humble, hard-working people.
But as much as the South needed to change, I was struck by the resistance to that change that came from within the African American Community. This fierce rigidity comes to life in the large, opinionated, and imposing character of Ma Pearl. Ma Pearl is the force that holds this family together. And while she is severe and unpleasant, her religion and values weave their way through the tapestry of their lives.
One dark and ominous morning, when it was apparent that something horrible had happened, her work was mixed with the singing of hymns:
"While her fingers shaped the sticky batter into dough, her made-up lyrics morphed into the humming of a real song. 'Why should I feel discouraged,' she sang quietly, 'and why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav'n and home?
I pulled back the curtain and stared into the early morning darkness again. As the sun peeked over the horizon, promising another blazing hot day, Slick Charlie finally got his lazy self up and crowed. I dropped the curtain and stared down at a crack in the floorboards as I listened to Ma Pearl's chanting, 'Jesus is my portion. A constant friend is he. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.'"
"His Eye Is On The Sparrow" - Mahalia Jackson
And as the violence and racist acts escalated to the murder of Emmett Till, fear and poverty kept people like Ma Pearl from tolerating activism in her family. As those in her family and community pressed the case for fighting back, Ma Pearl fought them:
"'Preeeeacher,' she addressed Reverend Jenkins sarcastically, 'you sit here in my kitchen telling me how things got to change. But the man who own this house says I best leave things the way they is. Tell me I gots to leave if I let these northern Negroes tell me how I oughta live in Mississippi. Now you tell me this: Where we go'n go if we git tho'd off this place? You got a house for me? You go'n let me and Paul and all these chir'ren of mines live in town with you and yo' boy? I 'spect y'all got 'nuff room for all us with all that money you makin' taintin' the chir'ren through the week and fleecin' the flock on Sunday.'"
I love how Rose's character changes and becomes more self-confident and mature through the course of this important summer. At the beginning of the story, her mother abandons her and her grandmother isn't nearly as nice to her as she is to her lighter skinned cousin, Queen. The title of the book comes from a put-down from Ma Pearl upon Rose's birth:
"Folks said that when I first came out of Mama, my skin was as pink as a flower. Mama said she took one look at me and declared, 'I'm go'n call you Rose, 'cause you so pretty like one.' But Ma Pearl said, 'Don't set yo' hopes high for that child, Anna Mae. Look at them ears. They as black as tar. By this time next year that lil' gal go'n be blacker than midnight without a moon, just like her daddy.'"
But later in the story, she remembers something a relative once said, "Stars shine brighter in the darkness." And as she considered the meaning of that phrase as it applied to her, she had to know if she "could shine in the darkness. Imagine how bright a star would shine at midnight without a moon!"
This story is told so well, so descriptively, so emotionally. It is engaging and compelling and many important discussions about race relations and the civil rights movement will be sparked from this novel. This book does contain a lot of strong language, violent imagery, and mature themes. It might work for very mature elementary school readers, but is probably better suited for middle school students. The ARC I read is labeled for readers Ages 10-12.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by HMH Books for Young Readers