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Social Justice Booktalks, a guest post by Cindy Shutts

Two weeks ago, when I was doing my bi-monthly booktalks for a sixth grade class, I was booktalking Because they Marched by Russell Freedman. This book focuses on the fact that it was nearly impossible to register to vote if you were black before the Voters Rights Act. One of the 6th graders asked me, “Are things better now?” I had to stop to think about what to say. I told him, “There has been some improvement, but in fact the Voters Rights Act has been overturned in part recently by the Supreme Court.  I do not know what will happen in the future, but I recommended learning more about the Voters Rights Act.” This conversation inspired me to focus my next booktalk session on social justice.  My resolve to use this topic for my booktalk also grew from waiting for the release of the decision on whether to indict from the grand jury in Ferguson. It was something I could do while I dealt with the helpless feelings of waiting.


My first choice for this booktalk is the classic, One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia. One Crazy Summer tells the story of Delphine and her two sisters when they go visit their mother who left them when they were little. They do not know what to expect and at first their mother is not sure what to do with them. Delphine and her sisters are sent to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers and they realize that the Black Panthers are not exactly like they are portrayed in the media.



I choose to include Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. This is a non-fiction picture book that I think they will enjoy. I had never heard anything about this case before. I knew about Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, but I was un familiar with the case of Mendez V. Westminster School District. Sylvia Mendez’s parents fought to have her placed in the school closest to her instead of the out of date and decrepit school for Mexican-American children and won.



Black &White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Conner by Larry Dane Brimner is another book that I must talk about. It concerns the epic struggle for civil rights in Birmingham between Reverend Shuttlesworth and “Bull” Conner. The Ku Klux Klan was all over Birmingham during the fifties and sixties. “Bull” Conner was a city commissioner and did not believe that there were problems in his city and he thought Shuttlesworth was wasting his time. Conner opposed desegregation and ordered the arrest of many civil rights protestors.


Strike!: The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights is another great title by Larry Dane Brimner. This discusses the Filipino farmer workers who stood up along with Cesar Chavez to get better working conditions and fairer wages.





Of course, I will include Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, this book that just won the National Book Award and is my personal pick to win the Newbery. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is so powerful when talking about her childhood during the civil rights era that when I read it, I felt transported to her childhood. You see the changes going on in the South when she is living with her grandparents.



The most current book I will talk about is Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth. In this book, Jarett’s mother becomes a foster mother to a teenage boy and his little sister.  I am including it on the list because of the powerful conversation between Jarrett and his mother’s boyfriend when they talk about what to do when a young black man is approached by the police. This is very timely with everything going on in Ferguson and around the country.



Cindy Shutts is the Teen Services Librarian at the White Oak Library District in IL. You can follow her on Twitter at @cindysku.

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

by Amanda MacGregor

Jefferson High School, Davisburg, Virginia. 1959.

In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, it’s been two years since the Supreme Court said all schools must integrate. The people in Davisburg have done everything they can to resist this order, including entirely shutting down their schools for months.

High school senior Sarah Dunbar is about to make history. She is one of ten black students who will begin attending an all-white school. Sarah and the other students arrive to find a large crowd of angry white people screaming at them, bellowing hateful words, and spitting at them. Sarah knew integration was going to be hard, but she had no idea it was going to be terrible. Day after day, Sarah and her friends are bullied, harassed, threatened, and attacked. The teachers don’t make it any better, choosing to ignore the way the white teenagers are acting, and usually being overtly racist and hateful themselves. Sarah, an excellent student who was on the college prep track at her old school and will attend Howard in the fall, is placed in remedial classes. In fact, all of the black students are in remedial classes, because of the assumption by the administration that the black students are intellectually inferior and have no place in more challenging classes. Through it all, Sarah is determined to hold her head high. She knows the movement is counting on her, that she can’t let it show that people are hurting her. She’s been told to look straight ahead, not talk back, not be caught alone, and just keep walking.

One of the most outspoken white students is Linda Hairston, who writes editorials championing segregation for the school newspaper. Linda mostly just mimics everything she’s heard her father, who is the editor of the local paper, say. When Linda and Sarah (along with Linda’s friend Judy) get paired up to work on a class project, Sarah begins taking Linda to task on her ideas and behavior. Unafraid to be outspoken, Sarah accuses her of not thinking for herself, suggests that deep down she doesn’t really share these same viciously hateful feelings that her father espouses. Sarah isn’t wrong. Suddenly, Linda is starting to feel shameful about the thoughts she’s been having about integration. She realizes she sort of likes and admires Sarah, but justifies these feelings by thinking that Sarah is special, that she’s better than the rest of “her people.” I don’t think characters need to be likeable or have redeeming qualities, but I will say that I initially balked at the narrative switch to Linda taking over the story. Talley does a fantastic job of getting in the mind of this young woman and letting her be hateful, ignorant, uncertain, curious, and complicated.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to another piece of this plot: Linda and Sarah’s growing attraction to each other. Sarah gives many hints early on that she’s been struggling with her sexuality. When she first notices Linda, she reminds herself that she’s supposed to force those feelings down, to act normal. When she thinks about kissing, she’s worried she’ll think the wrong things. Meanwhile, Linda has been spending a lot of time thinking about Sarah. But they’re just thoughts Anyway, Linda will marry Jack, her 22-year-old boyfriend, as soon as high school is done, escape her father’s house, and everything will be fine. Or at least that what she keeps telling herself, until she realizes that she can’t keep lying. She thinks, “I want Sarah the way I’m supposed to want Jack.” Both girls can only fool themselves for so long. When Sarah kisses Linda, their worlds break open. Suddenly, Linda and Sarah are questioning everything: their feelings for each other, their futures, the school integration, even the expectations from their families.

To call this novel powerful is an understatement. Told in alternate narration, the views Sarah and Linda give of this time in history are poignant. The unrelenting racism and violence is difficult to read, which is hardly surprising. The story is just as much Linda’s as it is Sarah’s. Both extremely stubborn girls confront their many preconceived notions. Both learn, change, and grow. Neither seems there simply to “teach” the other about the opposing side. Talley does an excellent job of showing how two young women do what they think they are supposed to do and act how they think they are supposed to act, only to discover that carving out their own futures might be possible. This book is an essential read. Talley tackles a lot in this novel, combining history, diversity, intersectionality, GLBTQ characters, family dynamics, and so much more. In less skilled hands, it would have been overwhelming. In Talley’s hands, it’s just masterfully knit together and moving.

An author’s note about this era in history and the research Talley did for her writing is appended, as is a section of Common Core-aligned questions for discussion.

Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 9/30/2014
Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss