Perfect reading for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and actually any day of the year, The Other Side and Freedom Summer are powerful stories about children’s friendships during a time of blatant racial inequality and prejudice in our nation’s history. Told through the eyes of innocent young narrators who see similarities more than differences, these two outstanding books (for about ages 6 to 8) raise thoughtful questions about what keeps people apart and what it must have felt like to have been a white or black child around the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
The narrator in The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is a young African American girl named Clover, who lives near a fence that separates the white people from the black people in town. One day, she notices a white girl sitting on the fence, watching her play with her friends. The girl seems lonely, but Clover’s friends say no when she asks to jump rope with them. Even Clover isn’t sure how she feels. All her life, she’d been warned to keep to her side of the fence because “it wasn’t safe.” When she asks why, her mother explains: “Because that’s the way things have always been.” But eventually, Clover gives in to her curiosity and the two girls shyly begin talking over the fence. Soon they’re spending days sitting together on top of the fence, becoming friends. Gradually, Clover’s friends follow Clover’s lead and let the new girl, Annie, play with them. Lewis’ stunning watercolor illustrations depict the girls, black and white, jumping rope in the bright sun and hanging out by the fence. The book ends optimistically, with these hopeful words from Annie: “Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down.” Even children too young to know what a metaphor is will instinctively understand that the fence stands for a segregated world. Textually and visually, the message here is empowering and ultimately joyful.
In Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, a young boy named Joe tells us about his best friend, John Henry. Joe is white; John Henry, who is the son of his family’s housekeeper, is black; and it’s the summer of 1964 in the South. Joe and John Henry are excited because the Civil Rights Act has just become law and they’ve discovered that means the town pool, which opens tomorrow, will now be open to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color.” Naively, the two boys plan to be the first ones at the pool when it opens. But when they get there, they find workers filling up the pool with asphalt. It’s John Henry, his voice shaking, who finally says out loud the hurtful truth: “White folks don’t want colored folks in their pool.” But the two friends find a way to take a stand—the last powerful image is that of the boys, from behind, walking through the front door of the once-segregated general store to buy some ice pops. There is no doubt about the boys’ bond and bravery, but readers are left to decide for themselves what the reaction will be when the friends enter the store.
Are you familiar with Freedom Summer and The Other Side? What other books would you recommend for discussing the Civil Rights Movement and issues of racism and prejudice with young children?