For Kids

February 01, 2000 8 min read

Through My Eyes,by Ruby Bridges. (Scholastic Press, $16.95; grades 2-6.) Adults disagree about when—indeed whether—young children should be exposed to the dark side of history: slavery, religious persecution, war, nuclear proliferation, and the like. Certainly, we should do our best to protect children from the evils of the world and preserve their moment of innocence for as long as possible. But when the time comes, as it must, to answer their questions, we must choose our words carefully.

Through My Eyes—the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, an important but little- known figure in the fight for racial desegregation—is a perfect book for such a time. Though most of the defining heroes of the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, to name but a few—performed their acts of courage as consenting adults, Ruby was only a 6-year-old child when, as she writes on the opening page, “history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind.”

Born in rural Mississippi in 1954—the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the end of “separate but equal” schooling for African American children—Ruby moved with her parents to segregated New Orleans when she was 4. There she attended kindergarten at an all-black school. It was a blissful year, she remembers. But that spring, she was given a test that would change her life forever. A federal judge had ordered the local school system to integrate two public elementary schools, one grade at a time. Based on her test scores, Ruby was one of four black children selected for the job. Her parents were reluctant, but officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pressured them, Bridges writes. In the end, her mother relented, against her father’s wishes.

As it turned out, three of the four children were sent to one school. Ruby, alone, integrated the other: the all-white William Frantz Public School. Through My Eyes is the story of that year, told in Ruby’s own words. Here is how she describes arriving at Frantz with federal marshals that first morning: “There were barricades and people shouting and policemen everywhere. I thought maybe it was Mardi Gras....As we walked through the crowd, I didn’t see any faces. I guess that’s because I wasn’t very tall, and I was surrounded by the marshals. People yelled and threw things. I could see the school building, and it looked bigger and nicer than my old school. When we climbed the high steps to the front door, there were policemen in uniforms at the top. The policemen at the door and the crowd behind us made me think this was an important place. It must be college, I thought to myself.”

Things got worse before they got better. Angry protesters turned out every morning to taunt and threaten Ruby. White hooligans left burning crosses in black neighborhoods across the city. Riots erupted. Most white parents pulled their children out of Frantz, leaving Ruby the sole student in her 1st grade class. Ruby and her teacher, a kind white woman named Barbara Henry, forged an especially close relationship, but she missed the companionship of other children.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until one day toward the end of the year, after a few white children had trickled back into the school, that she came to fully understand her situation. A little white boy told Ruby that his mother had forbidden him to play with her because she was “a nigger.” Until that moment, Bridges insists, she knew nothing about racism or integration. “I finally realized,” she writes, “that everything had happened because I was black.”

Bridges’ story has been documented before—Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote about her in his classic work, The Moral Life of Children, and again in a book for kids, The Story of Ruby Bridges—but her gentle first-person account here is the perfect introduction for young readers. She writes in simple, clear prose, using remarkable restraint when discussing her racist detractors. Her straightforward description of what she experienced that year and the photographs that illustrate each page leave no doubt about who held the moral high ground.

One photo in particular stands out. It is a shot of Ruby walking down the front steps of Frantz, a small black girl in a white dress surrounded by adults—her mother, the federal marshals, police officers, a photographer—and not another child in sight.

In the end, Bridges sums up her 1st grade experience this way: “I sometimes feel I lost something that year. I feel as if I lost my childhood. It seems that I have always had to deal with some adult issues.” This book, then, gives youngsters an intimate glimpse of an ugly chapter in American history through the eyes of an innocent child who was both hero and victim of a cause she didn’t understand. But Ruby’s story serves another purpose, as well. It reminds us that when adults fight their battles in the public school arena, children always get hurt.

—Blake Hume Rodman

The Trolls,by Polly Horvath. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 4-7.) Everyone panics when the babysitter for Amanda, Melissa, and PeeWee falls ill just before their parents leave for a week in Paris. Luckily, Aunt Sally, their father’s estranged and eccentric sister, agrees to look after the children. Aunt Sally’s baby-sitting practices prove unconventional but very effective: By week’s end, she has the children clamoring for both string beans and bedtime.

Aunt Sally’s trick is to reward the children with stories. These stories—mostly accounts of growing up with their father, Robbie, on Vancouver Island—serve the deeper purpose of instilling in the children a sense of their family history.

Bizarre and moving by turn, the tales bring to life their father’s childhood and its crazy cast of characters: health-obsessed Great-Uncle Louis, who “came for two weeks and stayed for six years,” and his obsessive search for bathing efficiency during the moose-wrestling season; Maud, the neighbor rumored to have slain 80 cougars, who leads young Sally, Robbie, and their older brothers on a terrifying cougar hunt; widowed Aunt Hattie and her beautiful, magical suitor; and practical Grandma Evelyn, with her uncontrollable passion for pinball.

Of all these stories, the one about the trolls is the most important. It weaves in and out of the others, finally reaching a conclusion that changes Sally and Robbie forever and serves as a mournful warning to Amanda and Melissa of the lingering consequences of cruelty to younger siblings.

Underneath the wit and humor of the memories Aunt Sally shares with the children lies a sense of sadness and loss. Yet Horvath manages to write with a magical grace that transforms the sad and the absurd into bittersweet images that both haunt and move the reader. Like much of life, The Trolls—a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award—is hilarious, sad, exhilarating, and comforting, often all at the same time.

—Stephen Del VecchioSpeak,by Laurie Halse Anderson. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; young adult.) Bitingly funny Melinda copes with depression, alienation, and fear after being raped the summer before her freshman year in high school. This first novel is at turns hilarious and mordant, painful and sweet, but ultimately it is triumphant. Melinda’s yearlong struggle to give voice to the fear and outrage consuming her pulls us in from the very first paragraph while never becoming bitter, strident, or predictable. A 1999 National Book Award finalist.

The Pig In A Wig,by Alan MacDonald, with illustrations by Paul Hess. (Peachtree, $15.95; grades K-2.)Peggoty thinks she is the prettiest, most perfect pig in the world until the other animals in the barnyard start making fun of her fat, bald body. To fix her sorry appearance, she crafts a ridiculous wig of curly hair, which really throws the other animals into stitches. In the end, Peggoty recovers her self-esteem—but not until she catches a glimpse of the farmer’s “beautiful” baby, who turns out to be as fat and pink and bald as she is. The glorious, full-spread watercolors are a scream.

Midnight Magic,by Avi. (Scholastic, $15.95; grades 4-8.) The year is 1491, and things look dark for the Kingdom of Pergamontio. Young Prince Lorenzo, heir to the throne, has disappeared and is feared dead, and Princess Teresina, the sole remaining heir, must wed Count Scarazoni, the king’s cruel and grasping adviser. As if that’s not enough, the once favored Mangus the Magician and his faithful servant, 12-year-old Fabrizio, are under house arrest, having been found guilty by the count of “brewing the stews of Satan.” What follows is a delicious concoction of secret passages, evil courtiers, disguised princes, a plucky heroine, wise-cracking heroes, dungeons, ghosts, conspiracy, and intrigue. With enough unexpected twists and mistaken identities to fill a Shakespeare play, this deftly plotted and briskly told page-turner will delight fans of mystery, suspense, and ghostly adventure, young and old, and will keep the reader guessing to the very end.

Things look pretty bleak for 10-year-old Bud “not Buddy” Caldwell: His beloved mother died four years ago; his new foster family locks him in a shed; his only hope of finding his father are some old posters he carries in a beat-up suitcase; and what with it being 1936, times are hard for everyone, especially black folk. But it takes a lot more than this to lick Bud Caldwell. Spurred on by his fear of vampires, he manages to escape the foster family and set out in search of his father. Through a combination of luck and pluck, good sense and good manners, helpful librarians and kindly strangers, Bud’s search is rewarded. Curtis brings the bleak years of the Depression alive through young Bud Caldwell’s story as his travels take him from soup kitchens to Hoovervilles, railyards, and roadsidesand finally home.

Ghost Of The Southern Belle: A Sea Tale,by Odds Bodkin, with illustrations by Bernie Fuchs. (Little Brown, $15.95; grades 1-3.) Noted storyteller Bodkin weaves a dark, gripping yarn about a young seafaring boy and a mysterious Confederate ship captain named LeNoir. During a chance meeting, the captain, who gets his kicks harassing Yankee schooners, foolishly gives the lad his good-luck charm, a small silver ball inlaid with Chinese characters. Without the charm’s protection, the captain’s ship, the Southern Belle, and all aboard go down in a storm. Fearing he is somehow responsible for the wreck and a series of disasters that follow, the boy hatches a plan to make peace with the captain’s ghost. Although this is something of an old-fashioned boy’s story, children of both sexes will get swept away, both by the narrative and Fuchs’ haunting oils.

—Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman