Review: Revolution, by Deborah Wiles (2014)

Revolution coverThis 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.

Finally, here’s Deborah Wiles’ story of writing the book, on Nerdy Book Club, and a Boston Globe piece looking back at Freedom Summer activists.

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3 Responses to Review: Revolution, by Deborah Wiles (2014)

  1. Greg says:

    It’s good to hear that somewhere some students are having a meaningful summer historical reading experience. Our incoming college students this year read Persepolis for our Common Reading program. I’m not convinced many of them got much out of it. I don’t think it spoke close enough to home for them. Maybe we should have them read Revolution.

    • Sam says:

      Unpopular opinion alert: Persepolis got a lot of attention, but I’m not honestly sure it’s that engaging a book. An obvious choice if you’re studying Iranian history, but otherwise… just a pretty good graphic memoir. What were your college’s goals in having the students read it? Choosing an all-school read is very very hard (though I would think somewhat easier at the college level than trying to pick one for grades 6-12!).

      Revolution is definitely written for 11-15 year olds, not college-age almost-adults. It’s also long for an all-school summer read. But I’m a big proponent of pithy kids’ books as assigned reading in this sort of circumstance. Happy to make suggestions if you’re involved with the selection process!

      • Greg says:

        Really? I thought Persepolis was great.

        Technically, it’s not an all-school read, but just for the incoming freshpeople. But I agree it’s hard to come up with something. I’m not on that committee, but I routinely hate their choices. I was very happy to have them pick Persepolis, but it didn’t work out so well in the end from my perspective, which admittedly is biased toward the one role I play in this process – leading a discussion session with incoming students the Friday before classes start. The best of those, to my surprise, was the one where we did some readings about the second amendment. The readings were terrible, but since it was a topic students were passionate about on both sides, it led to some exciting classroom discussion. The problem with Persepolis, from this viewpoint, is that everyone came away feeling essentially the same way about what they read, and if anyone didn’t, they didn’t care enough to talk about it in the discussion or they were afraid to talk about it in the discussion. Of course it doesn’t help that my training is very far from leading these kinds of discussion, so I’m not so good at provoking conversations that don’t happen naturally and are among largely disinterested students.

        As to why we chose Persepolis, again I’m not on that committee, but almost certainly it ties into our recent broader internationalization themes (the result of our accrediting agency forcing a self-improvement project upon us (which I view as deeply inappropriate and immoral, but I digress…)). The Common Reading program in general is about bringing the students into the university with a first example of a college level educational experience. Unfortunately, for many, it’s a first college level experience of not reading the assigned reading. However, the previous orientation week was almost exclusively about sororities and football, so adding an educational component, however poorly it works in practice, at least sneaks an academic message into the orientation experience. After this year’s experience, though, I’ve suggested to the committee that it’s more critical, in this one circumstance, to cater to topics that incoming college students might actually care about. So I’ve actually suggested that we read something about school sports, maybe a Friday Night Lights or something that will let us debate the role of athletics in academics. Or something of that ilk. We’ll see how it goes. The one colleague I knew on that committee is rotating off, so my influence might soon be even less than what it was.

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