Revolution by Deborah Wiles is a 2014 National Book Award finalist in the young people’s literature category, but I first learned about it via Heavy Medal as a potential Newbery contender. It is the second book in Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy. However, Revolution stands up very well on its own. It’s a a documentary novel, something I don’t remember ever reading before (and in fact I didn’t even know what to call it until I saw the term on Wiles’ website). This means it’s a scrapbook, of sorts–the actual novel is interspersed with photographs, news clippings, current-event essays, etc. That brings the page count for the book up past the 500 mark. Even without all the extras, though, Revolution is a substantive story. It’s the story of Greenwood, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer, the summer of 1964. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Sunny Fairchild, a twelve year old girl who has recently acquired a whole new family–a stepbrother, a stepmother, and a stepsister, to round out her family of two. Her dad, once one of the town’s “good old bad boys,” settled down into respectability–and fatherhood–a few years after Sunny’s mother ran off at Sunny’s birth. This is really the family’s and the town’s story, too, told mostly through Sunny’s eyes, but also through the eyes of a fourteen year old black boy named Raymond Bullis. Sunny and her stepbrother, Gillette, have a run-in with Raymond in the opening chapter of the story, and he remains an enticing enigma to them–Who is the kid in the white hi-tops who has the gall to jump the fence and take a moonlit swim in the Whites Only Greenwood public pool?
This is a dense story, full of spot-on period details and lots of emotion, warmth, and insight into the inner-workings of a twelve year old girl who feels out of sorts because her mother abandoned her. Couple that with all the sixties angst, and it’s really very emotionally touching. I admit to shedding a few tears in this story. The back-and-forth POV switching is something I’ve never liked very much, but the voices are different enough (not to mention the fact that the pages themselves are shaded differently or use a different font from character to character) that I didn’t have one bit of trouble following the story. I did find the “documentary” parts of the novel a little off-putting at times, but after I understood that the details they give actually enhance the story (for example, all of the Civil Rights acronyms that are very confusing), I actually began to read (or at least skim) them. In fact, one of the most touching parts of the story for me was a little autiobiographical sketch of President Johnson, certainly not someone I would’ve ever imagined tearing up over before now.
I read Deborah Wiles’ Love, Ruby Lavender years ago but still remember it, which must mean I thought it was a pretty good story. One thing I particularly like is that she’s a Southern writer writing about Southerners, so she gets the voices and the diction right. I love this description from Revolution:
The phone rings before the sun is up, and that’s saying something. When it’s summer, the birds start making a racket before five o’clock in the morning, which is the time it’s finally cool enough to pull up the covers and dream one last sweet dream, just before the sun beams over the horizon and starts to butter the day.
So that’s what I do. My warm sheet feels just right against my chilly shoulders. (148)
This is a highly-polished story. I love it, and I’m sure it will make my Best Books list for 2014. My only criticism of it is that it feels rushed at the end–like we had a whole, slow summer full of all kinds of action and adventure and worry–and then bam!–it’s fall and the kids are back in school and things have settled back down into a semblance of normalcy. I really want to know more about a lot of things that are hinted at the in story. I want to know Gillette’s family story, especially. I figure there’s more to come about that, maybe, since it is part of a trilogy. I do want to go back and read the first Sixties Trilogy story, Countdown. These books would make excellent companions to a study of this time period in U.S. History. Highly (Highly) Recommended. (Scholastic, 2014)
Other middle grade novels set in the 1960s:
- The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (religious issues and Vietnam War)
- Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (Vietnam War on the periphery)
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia (Civil Rights in California–Black Panthers, etc.)
- P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams Garcia (Vietnam War, women’s liberation)
- The Lions of Little Rock by Kristen Levine (late 1950s school integration)