This summer I taught 7th and 8th grade humanities at a summer program. I loved the combination of English and social studies in one curriculum, especially at the middle school level — the story part of history made the facts meaningful, and the real-world issues of the novels grounded our discussion of literary devices. It was a powerful way to study both subjects, and a whole lot of fun for me to teach.
Deborah Wiles is clearly on the same wavelength with me about this. She calls her 60s Trilogy “documentary novels.” In between chapters of a traditional novel, she intersperses photographs, quotations, song lyrics, and even whole biographical chapters about real people mentioned in the novel. They can be quite moving, and never let you forget that you’re reading about real events. Sometimes the connection to the story wasn’t clear right away, but with patience some readers will appreciate the atmosphere and factual scaffolding. (Other readers will skip the “documentary” parts entirely, which is also fine — the story works on its own.)
My one criticism is that the initial set of quotes and photographs goes on for 38 pages. That’s way too much material, I think, to expect a middle schooler to absorb without context before getting to the story. I would have stuck to 2-4 pages, just to set the scene and introduce the style, then added more once the story got going.
The story itself is excellent. It’s set in Greenwood, Mississippi, during the massive black voter registration movement of the Freedom Summer, 1964. Sunny’s family problems interweave with her town’s problems just as they would in real life. No characters are cartoon heroes or cartoon villains, even in a history full of heroic and villainous acts. I especially loved seeing into the lives of the “invaders” (as the white Mississippians called the black and white students and activists descending on their state) and the mostly black families who hosted them. Although many of those activists were young people, I’d never read a Middle Grade or YA story focusing on them before. I hope to see more; it seems like a missed opportunity.
This is definitely Sunny’s story — how a white family decides what it means to be good people when they see their friends doing evil, or at least turning a blind eye to it. Raymond, a black boy Sunny’s older stepbrother’s age, gets an occasional chapter as he develops into an activist, but it never felt like enough. I’m fine with this being a white girl’s story, but we (as always) need more of the black kids’ stories, too.
Note that this claims to be #2 in a trilogy, but it’s more a thematic trilogy. As far as I can tell, the books don’t even have connecting characters. Revolution absolutely stood alone.
Read-alikes and connections: I want to teach this book. I think the writing is absolutely literary enough to stand up to a middle school English class, and I was full of research projects and daily assignment ideas for the documentary components. As a $20, 500-ish page hardcover it’s a bit hefty for a classroom, but teaching will be doable when it comes out in paperback.
Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is another favorite MG novel about the Civil Rights Era South, and of course Revolution connects well to To Kill a Mockingbird.