Wiles, D., & Lagarrigue, J. (2001). Freedom Summer. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Joe and John Henry are friends in the American South in the summer of 1964. They are great friends and have a lot in common. The only differences are that John Henry’s mom works for Joe’s parents and that Joe is white and John Henry is black. Joe notices that John Henry isn’t allowed in some of the places he is, one of them is at the town pool. Joe hears that a law has been passed making it illegal to keep anyone out of pools and shops and more based on their skin color. Joe and John Henry can’t wait to go swimming together the next morning. Will they get to have their swim together? Will they get to enjoy floats at the ice cream shop together? Will the new laws change anything about their friendship?
The fight for Civil Rights in the United States is one of those important subjects that deal with right and wrong. Being such, there are many books written about them that are heavy with didacticism. While it is a subject that warrants this, it is heartening to see stories told on the subject that pack a punch without this added weight. Freedom Summer is one of these stories. Wiles’ storytelling from the perspective of a young boy awakening to injustice is effective. She saves any morality talk for John Henry as the boys sit on the diving board over the newly tarred-over pool. And it is understated at that; there is so much more that John Henry could say. However, with the boys sitting over the pool filled with tar, his words are heavy with meaning:
“I wanted to swim in this pool. I want to do everything you can do.”
Wiles shows readers the world through the eyes of a young white boy whose best friend is a young black boy. She chooses to keep a sharp and specific focus, rather than attempting the impossible task of taking on all that is the huge and complex issue of racism. In doing so, she wisely speaks of what she knows and this yields heart felt insight that can be gained from her excellent book by readers of all ages.
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Feb. 15, 2001 (Vol. 97, No. 12))
John Henry Waddell is my best friend,” begins the narrator of this story, set during a summer of desegregation in the South. John Henry is black and the narrator is white, so the boys swim together at the creek, rather than at the whites-only town pool, and the narrator buys the ice-cream at the segregated store. When new laws mandate that the pool, and everything else, must desegregate, the boys rejoice, until the town fills the pool with tar in protest and the narrator tries to see this town, “through John Henry’s eyes.” The boy’s voice, presented in punchy, almost poetic sentences, feels overly romanticized, even contrived in places. It’s the illustrations that stun. In vibrantly colored, broad strokes, Lagarrigue, who illustrated Nikki Grimes’ My Man Blue (1999), paints riveting portraits of the boys, particularly of John Henry, that greatly increase the story’s emotional power. Beautiful work by an illustrator to watch.
Dawn Cobb (The Lorgnette – Heart of Texas Reviews (Vol. 14, No. 2))
This touching story of friendship between two boys takes place in the South during the summer of 1964. Joe and John Henry, who are of different colors, see beyond their obvious differences and focus on their similarities. The author does an excellent job of portraying the social injustices and the boys’ reactions to the various situations. This book will likely inspire students to ask many difficult questions about our nation’s past.
Use in Library
This book would make an excellent springboard for a discussion about the problems of injustice and inequality.