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When the Personal Becomes Political

2013 May 31
by Ellen Snoeyenbos
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I find a lot of books for teen readers set in a Jim Crow South of the 40s, 50s, and 60s to have all the subtlety of a two-by-four. I mean, the rightness of the Civil Rights cause is clear from the outset, and the segregationists are all framed as mean-spirited bigots who all have white robes in the closet. But wait a minute! Don’t roll your eyes again! I’ve read a couple of books lately that defy our worn-out moral expectations.

lions of little rock kristin levine coverThe Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is an absolute page-turner about the year AFTER the Little Rock Nine took their stand. The struggle was by no means over. The main character, Marlee, has trouble speaking up. In fact, she’s practically mute. She befriends a black girl, Liz, who is passing for white in a Little Rock middle school. Talk about a dangerous path to take. Liz is a pistol! Both Marlee and Liz find ways to help each other with character flaws that seem genuine.

What I love about this book is that, just like the Gay Rights movement today, many well-meaning but nervous people who first had to talk about it with those most affected come to an awareness of the damaged caused by segregation to make the leap of faith to do the right thing. Levine doesn’t paint all the segregationists with the same racist brush. Then too, both Marlee and Liz have believable families who value safety highly, as any parent would. The action accelerates rapidly to a tense and potentially violent climax.

flygirl sherri l smith coverFlygirl by Sherri Smith tackles the topic of passing as white through the experiences of Ida Mae Jones, a fictitious but fully believable character who is an aspiring airplane pilot during World War II. Passing as white, she qualifies for the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots program only to have her best friend back in Louisiana give her massive cold shoulder. “So you think you’re better than us, Ida Mae?” Jolene says. Here we dig deeper into what it means to change your racial identity — even for good cause. Ida Mae has to learn NOT to bow her head in deference, to speak in a forthright matter, to change her accent slightly — all very subtle but essential shifts to successfully “pass.” Is she turning her back on her own heritage?

Both of these books deal with the day-to-day reality of two races living if not together, at least in a firmly established pecking order. Both books don’t overstate the obvious but bring a deeper awareness of race, white privilege, and the messy business of transforming society one mind at a time.

— Ellen Snoeyenbos, currently reading Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

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