Revolution

RevolutionRevolution (The Sixties Trilogy Book #2) by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press, 2014. 544 pages. Publisher recommends for grades 3-7. ISBN: 978-0545106078.

Revolution is a literary tour de force. Through the voice of Sunny, a 12-year-old white girl, and the voice of Ray, a 16-year-old black boy, both living in Greenwood, Mississippi in the summer of 1964, Wiles presents an exquisitely crafted multidimensional picture of a Mississippi town during Freedom Summer.

Most of the story is told by Sunny. She’s having trouble embracing or even tolerating change at home. She loves the Beatles and summertime and her friends. From the time of their first encounter she’s curious about Ray. She’s also curious about the civil rights workers who have come to Mississippi to register black voters. One in particular interests her: Jo Ellen, who is Franny’s sister from Wiles book “Countdown”. People, such as her grandmother, tell Sunny how she ought to think about the civil rights workers and about blacks.  But Sunny isn’t one to let other people tell her much of anything. As her life intersects with Jo Ellen’s and with Ray’s, she becomes more and more aware of how unjustly blacks are treated in her town. She also sees the violence towards blacks and towards “the invaders,“ the civil rights workers, on the part of the police force and others in the community.

In his part of the story, Ray chafes at the lack of equality in the Jim Crow South. For him, the civil rights workers are moving too slowly. He pushes to see if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will be enforced in Mississippi almost as soon as it has been signed.

The last episode in the book is not surprising. It should be. It should be inconceivable. But the picture of Mississippi in 1964 is so well drawn that when the episode happens it almost seems inevitable.

In addition to Sunny’s voice and Ray’s voice there is a narrator’s voice that tells us some things about Sunny’s stepbrother and about Sunny’s father that we wouldn’t otherwise know. And there are pages of nonfiction background about the mid-sixties, including a biography of Lyndon Johnson. As in “Countdown,” there are pages of pictures and song lyrics from the time. I’ve wondered if this switching between four different voices would be difficult for the target age group. My current thought is that this is an excellent choice for a middle grade kid who wants a reading challenge. It’s a great example of what literature can do.

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Copyright © Elizabeth Parrott, 2014.

Countdown

CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press 2010. 400 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780545106054.

Once I ordered a nonfiction book for a school library because it included “primary sources”. I was disappointed to find that “primary sources” meant two or three one sentence quotes. Countdown really does include primary sources. It’s a documentary novel. The documentary portion of the novel captures the national politics and international politics of the early 60s, as well as the social climate. This part of the novel is woven in between the story of Franny’s day-to-day life as an 11-year-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the international scene, Kennedy and Khrushchev are engaged in a staring match over the missiles in Cuba. On the national scene, blacks are protesting their treatment in the segregated South. There is a buildup of military advisors in Vietnam. Manned space exploration captures the country’s imagination. The documentary portion includes short biographies of Pete Seeger, JFK and civil rights activist Mary Lou Hamer, as well as many, many quotes from news and government agencies and from speeches. It also includes a remarkable number of photographs.

In Franny’s life, things are changing. Her older sister has become involved with a group of people trying to change the world. Her best friend is acting like her worst enemy. Her father’s uncle responds to the threat of nuclear attack in a way that makes no sense to Franny. And on top of all of this, the missile crisis makes her afraid she may not live long enough to grow up.

On the day after Kennedy’s speech to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis, Franny feels that everything has changed. The “duck and cover” instructions become more intrusive in Franny’s story. Her thoughts seem to be returning more and more frequently to the fear that she’ll die tomorrow. She’s been composing a letter to Khrushchev for some time, but the crisis makes it even more important that she try to tell him that the citizens of the US aren’t so different from the citizens of the Soviet Union. It’s as if by communicating to Khrushchev, she can act in a political way to make the situation better.

I was four years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’d been going to Pete’s Seeger concerts for four years by that time. A year later my parents went to the March on Washington.  As I grew I became terrified of nuclear war, just as Franny was. Wiles has rendered my experience of the 60s very accurately.

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