Books About the Civil Rights Movement for Middle Grade Readers
Half a century ago, the amazing courage of Rosa Parks,
The visionary leadership of Martin Luther King,
and the inspirational actions of the civil rights movement
led politicians to write equality into the law
and make real the promise of America for all her citizens.
– David Cameron
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we here at the Literary Duck hope you’ll spend time talking with the young people in your life about the importance of the civil rights movement in this nation, about the fight to end racial segregation and discrimination, and to give all Americans constitutional voting rights, regardless of ethnicity or gender.
We’ve put together a reading list for those middle grade readers that you love. In these books, they can learn about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery marches, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and so much more … all while diving into a good story of young people much like themselves.
Thank you, Dr. King, for helping to transform our nation. We are eternally grateful.
One Crazy Summer
By: Rita Williams-Garcia
Eleven-year-old Delphine has only a few fragmented memories of her mother, Cecile, a poet who wrote verses on walls and cereal boxes, played smoky jazz records, and abandoned the family in Brooklyn after giving birth to her third daughter. In the summer of 1968, Delphine’s father decides that seeing Cecile is something whose time had come, and Delphine boards a plane with her sisters to Cecile’s home in Oakland. What they find there is far from their California dreams of Disneyland and movie stars. “No one told y’all to come out here,” Cecile says. “No one wants you out here making a mess, stopping my work.” Like the rest of her life, Cecile’s work is a mystery conducted behind the doors of the kitchen that she forbids her daughters to enter. For meals, Cecile sends the girls to a Chinese restaurant or to the local Black Panther run community center, where Cecile is known as Sister Inzilla and where the girls begin to attend youth programs. Regimented, responsible, strong-willed Delphine narrates in an unforgettable voice, but each of the sisters emerges as a distinct, memorable character, whose hard-won, tenuous connections with their mother build to an aching, triumphant conclusion. Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent’s love. Ages 8 – 13 (Booklist)
By: Augusta Scattergood
Spunky, engaging Gloriana Hemphill, 11, describes the “freedom summer” of 1964 in Hanging Moss, MS, where winds of social change are beginning to upset the status quo. In a series of eye-opening adventures, Glory learns that her sheltered life as a preacher’s kid has overshadowed her awareness of injustice and intolerance in her town. When the segregated community pool is closed indefinitely, her predictable world is upended. A new girl arrives from Ohio with her mother, a nurse who will be running a Freedom Clinic for poor black people. Big sister Jesslyn’s new boyfriend reveals that he was once jailed in North Carolina for sitting with a “colored friend” at a white lunch counter. Meanwhile, best friend Frankie spouts dislike of Yankees and Negroes but is clearly manipulated by a racist father and an abusive older brother. Although Glory’s ingenuous, impulsive behavior often gets her in trouble at home and in the community, she learns the importance of compassion, discretion and self-awareness. A cast of supportive adults helps her mature: her patient, widowed father; her beloved African American housekeeper; and the open-minded local librarian. This coming-of-age story offers a fresh, youthful perspective on a pivotal civil rights period. Historical references to Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s visit, the influx of civil rights workers, and Elvis vs. The Beatles popularity are included. But the richness of this story lies in the Mississippi milieu, the feisty naiveté of the protagonist, and the unveiling of the complexities of human nature. Glory is an appealing, authentic character whose unflinching convictions, missteps and reflections will captivate readers. Ages 9 – 12 (School Library Journal)
By: Mary Ann Rodman
The year is 1964, and Alice Ann Moxley’s FBI-agent father has been reassigned from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi. Alice finds herself thrust into the midst of the racial turmoil that dominates current events, especially when a black girl named Valerie Taylor joins her sixth-grade class. When Alice finds that no one at school likes her, she figures Valerie, being the other outsider, will be easier to make friends with. No such luck, since Valerie doesn’t seem to be looking for friends. Instead, Valerie silently endures the frequent harassment from classmates, much worse than what Alice is put through. Soon, Alice decides the only way to befriend anyone is to join in the efforts to make Valerie miserable. But will Alice learn the consequences of following the crowd instead of her heart before it’s too late? Ages 9 – 12 (Publisher’s Marketing)
A Tugging String: A Novel About Growing Up During the Civil Rights Era
By: David Greenberg
A fascinating look at the Civil Rights Movement, specifically the campaign to gain the vote for blacks in Selma, AL. The author, son of Jack Greenberg, a civil rights lawyer and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the 1960s, provides a unique perspective on this time, wrapping actual events within a fictional story line. It centers around David’s boyhood in Great Neck, NY, as he grows in understanding of the often-dangerous work his father does. Alternating chapters focus on Jack Greenberg’s efforts in the South, the courageous individuals with whom he comes into contact (ranging from regular people to leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the threats they all face daily. This book is at once homage of a son to his father and an exploration of a crucial moment in American history. Dad is lovingly portrayed, as is the rest of the Greenberg family. The narrative beautifully melds historical fact with imagined situations and characters (footnotes and a postscript clearly delineate between real and fictionalized events). Although didactic at times, it is clearly written and sincere, and it should prove appealing to those readers who absorb historical fact better through historical fiction. Ages 9 – 14 (School Library Journal)
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963
By: Christopher Paul Curtis
Kenny’s family is known in Flint, Michigan, as the Weird Watsons, for lots of good reasons. Younger sister Joetta has been led to believe she has to be overdressed in the winter because Southern folks (their mother is from Alabama) freeze solid and have to be picked up by the city garbage trucks. Kenny, the narrator, does well in school and tries to meet his hard-working parents’ expectations. After a string of misdeeds, Mr. and Mrs. Watson decide that tough guy, older brother Byron must be removed from the bad influences of the city and his gang. They feel that his maternal grandmother and a different way of life in Birmingham might make him appreciate what he has. Since the story is set in 1963, the family must make careful preparations for their trip, for they cannot count on food or housing being available on the road once they cross into the South. The slow, sultry pace of life has a beneficial effect on all of the children until the fateful day when a local church is bombed, and Kenny runs to look for his sister. Written in a full-throated, hearty voice, this is a perfectly described piece of past imperfect. Curtis’s ability to switch from fun and funky to pinpoint-accurate psychological imagery works unusually well. Although the horrific Birmingham Sunday throws Kenny into temporary withdrawl, this story is really about the strength of family love and endurance. Ribald humor, sly sibling digs, and a totally believable child’s view of the world will make this book an instant hit. Ages 10 – 13 (School Library Journal)
A Thousand Never Evers
By: Shana Burg
In Kuckachoo, Mississippi, 1963, Addie Ann Pickett worships her brother Elias and follows in his footsteps by attending the black junior high school. But when her careless act leads to her brother’s disappearance and possible murder, Addie Ann, Mama, and Uncle Bump struggle with not knowing if he’s dead or alive. Then a good deed meant to unite Kuckachoo sets off a chain of explosive events. Addie Ann knows Old Man Adams left his land to the white and black people to plant a garden and reap its bounty together, but the mayor denies it. On garden picking day, Addie Ann’s family is sorely tested. Through tragedy, she finds the voice to lead a civil rights march all her own, and maybe change the future for her people. Ages 10 – 13 (Publisher’s Marketing)
Fire from the Rock
By: Sharon M. Draper
Draper neatly intertwines history, pop culture, and emotion as she explores the turbulent era of Civil Rights through the eyes of an African-American teen. The year is 1957 and Sylvia Faye is chosen to be one of the first black students to enter Central High School in the racially charged town of Little Rock, AR, where the owner of the barbershop has “trained his dogs to attack Negroes.” She is excited and honored but also very scared. She worries about her older brother who challenges whites with his fists instead of following her noble example by excelling in school and walking away from trouble. Sylvia Faye’s character is very real and appealing, and the frank dialogue is both educational and refreshing. The text alternates between third-person narrative and Sylvia Faye’s journal entries, allowing readers to experience her thoughts and fears about the important decision she must make. The author’s ability to explore numerous prejudices subtly without bogging down readers with too much backstory is impressive, and she effectively shows the enormity of the decision and the tenor of the times. Ages 11 – 15 (School Library Journal)
Wreath for Emmett Till
By: Marilyn Nelson
“I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life,” writes the creator of award-winning Carver (2001) in the introduction to this offering—a searing poetry collection about Till’s brutal, racially motivated murder. The poems form a heroic crown of sonnets—a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter,” writes Nelson. The rigid form distills the words’ overwhelming emotion into potent, heart-stopping lines that speak from changing perspectives, including that of a tree. Closing notes offer context to the sophisticated allusions to literature and history, but the raw power of many lines needs no translation. Nelson speaks of human history’s deep contradictions: “My country, ‘tis both / thy nightmare history and thy grand dream.” But there’s also the hope that comes from facing the past and moving forward: “In my house, there is still something called grace, / which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole.” When matched with Lardy’s gripping, spare, symbolic paintings of tree trunks, blood-red roots, and wreaths of thorns, these poems are a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss together. Ages 12 – Up (Booklist)
An innocent teenager.
An unexpected hero.
In 1957, Melba Pattillo turned sixteen. That was also the year she became a warrior on the front lines of a civil rights firestorm. Following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling, “Brown v. Board of Education, “ Melba was one of nine teenagers chosen to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Throughout her harrowing ordeal, Melba was taunted by her schoolmates and their parents, threatened by a lynch mob’s rope, attacked with lighted sticks of dynamite, and injured by acid sprayed in her eyes. But through it all, she acted with dignity and courage, and refused to back down.
This is her remarkable story. Ages 12 – Up (Publisher’s Marketing)
Lewis Michaux provided a venue for his fellow African-Americans to have access to their own history and philosophy at a time when the very idea was revolutionary. Michaux’s family despaired of him, as he engaged in petty crime and was obviously headed in the wrong direction. He began to read, however, and discovered a connection to the writings of Marcus Garvey and others, and he determined that knowledge of black thinkers and writers was the way to freedom and dignity. With an inventory of five books, he started his National Memorial African Bookstore as “the home of proper propaganda” and built it into a Harlem landmark, where he encouraged his neighbors to read, discuss and learn, whether or not they could afford to buy. His clients included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. Nelson, Michaux’s great-niece, makes use of an exhaustive collection of interviews, articles, books, transcripts and FBI files, filling in the gaps with “informed speculation.” Brief entries arranged in mostly chronological order read seamlessly so that fact and fiction meld in a cohesive whole. Michaux’s voice blends with those of the people in his life, providing a full portrait of a remarkable man. Copious illustrations in the form of photographs, copies of appropriate ephemera and Christie’s powerfully emotional free-form line drawings add depth and focus. A stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history. Ages 12 – Up (Kirkus Reviews)
To Kill a Mockingbird
By: Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork of honor and injustice in the deep South—and the heroism of one man in the face of blind and violent hatred. One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, served as the basis of an enormously popular motion picture, and was voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. Ages 12 – Up (Publisher’s Marketing)
The Rock and the River
By: Kekla Magoon
In Chicago in 1968, Sam, 14, obeys his father, an eloquent civil-rights leader who is close with Dr. King and is passionately committed to nonviolent protest. But after King is assassinated and Sam witnesses police brutality toward a friend, Sam follows his rebellious older brother, Stephen (Stick), and joins the Black Panthers, whose revolutionary platform is the opposite of the nonviolent philosophy that Sam has been taught at home. Then Sam’s father is stabbed. Will the brothers retaliate with violence? True to the young teen’s viewpoint, this taut, eloquent first novel will make readers feel what it was like to be young, black and militant 40 years ago, including the seething fury and desperation over the daily discrimination that drove the oppressed to fight back. Sam’s middle-class family is loving and loyal, even when their quarrels are intense; and Magoon draws the characters without sentimentality. Along with the family drama, the politics will grab readers, especially the Panthers political education classes and their call for land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. A long author’s note fills in background in this important title for YA American history classes. Ages 12 – Up (Booklist)