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FREEDOM SUMMER by Deborah Wiles Kirkus Star


by Deborah Wiles & illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

Age Range: 6 - 12

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-689-83016-5
Publisher: Atheneum

Wiles draws on memories of her childhood summers in Mississippi in her first picture book, a slice-of-life story about Joe, a Caucasian boy, and his best friend, John Henry, an African-American boy whose mother works as a housekeeper for Joe’s family. The setting is the Deep South in the summer of 1964, the period called Freedom Summer for its wide-ranging social changes following passage of the Civil Rights Act. Joe and John Henry have spent all their summers together, working around the rampant prejudice of the era and maintaining their friendship even though they can’t swim in the public pool together or walk into the local store to buy a pair of ice pops. When the new law takes effect, the boys race together to the public pool only to find it being filled in with asphalt by city workers. John Henry’s hurt and shame ring true in the text, but Joe’s precocious understanding of the situation outstrips his age. (“I want to see this town with John Henry’s eyes.”) An author’s note at the beginning of the book describes her experiences and the atmosphere in her own hometown during this era, when some white business owners preferred to close down rather than open their doors to African-Americans. Younger children will need this background explanation to understand the story’s underlying layers of meaning, or the filling-in of the swimming pool will seem like a mindless bureaucratic blunder rather than concrete prejudice in action. Teachers and parents could use this book as a quiet but powerful introduction to the prejudice experienced by many Americans, and of course the book is a natural to pair with the story of another, more-famous John Henry. Vibrant full-page paintings by talented French-born artist Lagarrigue capture both the palpable heat of southern summer days and the warmth of the boys’ friendship. (Picture book. 6-12)