June 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Two New Middle Grade Novels Explore Racism, Past and Present | SLJ Spotlight

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Over the past year, we’ve seen several YA novels dealing with racial prejudice, police violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement rise up the best seller lists, most notably Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (one of SLJ’s Best Books of 2017). Systemic racism in American history and its ongoing effects are explored thoughtfully through the lens of tween characters in two novels reviewed in our December issue.

redstarJohnson, Varian. The Parker Inheritance. 352p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Mar. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545946179.

Gr 4-6 –Part historical fiction, part critical problem-solving exercise, part suspenseful mystery, this story weaves through the past and present of one town’s struggle with hatred and racism. Candice and her mother have moved temporarily from Washington, D.C., to her mother’s hometown in Lambert, SC, while her parents finalize the plans of their amicable divorce. Candice is miserable until she meets Brandon and finds an old letter addressed to her from her deceased grandmother with a puzzle enclosed. Twenty years prior, her grandmother had tried unsuccessfully to solve the puzzle that would yield a great deal of money to the town and the person who solved it. Together, Candice and Brandon make their own attempt. Who were Enoch, Leanne, and Siobhan Washington? How does an illegal tennis match played in 1957 between the white Wallace School and African American Perkins School factor into the solution? The characters are varied, authentic, and well developed. The plot moves along quickly and seamlessly between the past and present, with chapters from the 1950s shaded in light gray for a smart visual effect. The present day isn’t sugarcoated, showing readers that racial equity is still an unresolved problem. Appended author notes offer additional context, making it an excellent link to social studies or history units. VERDICT A must-purchase for most libraries, especially where Johnson’s previous titles have fans.–Anne Jung-Mathews, Plymouth State University, NH

redstarShabazz, Ilyasah with Renée Watson. Betty Before X. 256p. Farrar. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374306106.

Gr 4-6 –This novel centering the girl who would become the wife of Malcolm X and accomplish much on her own after his assassination reminds readers that even legendary figures are real people. Betty Dean Sanders was born in 1934 in Pinehurst, GA. At barely a year old, she was taken from her mother, Ollie Mae, because there was evidence of abuse. She lived with her grandmother and aunt until she was seven. When Aunt Fannie Mae died, Betty was sent to Detroit to live again with Ollie Mae. The mother-daughter relationship was never comfortable, and when there was more abuse, Betty was taken in, at the age of 11, by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, who raised her until she left for college. The authors highlight Betty’s personal trials and those of the civil rights struggle. Emotional but not melodramatic, the facts and events speak for themselves. Readers will acutely feel the confusion and pain Betty experiences with her mother, her anger at the treatment of African Americans, and the hopefulness instilled by Helen Malloy and her Housewives’ League as they boycott businesses which will not hire blacks. There is also the warmth of Betty’s community, the love of her sisters, the peace she finds in her faith, and the joy of her accomplishments. VERDICT An excellent work of historical fiction that will illuminate and spark discussion. Pair this with Shabazz’s X: A Novel for a well-rounded picture of the couple and their times.–Katherine Koenig, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.



  1. Nancy Kiefer says:

    Dear Kiera Parrott,
    Thank-you for introducing me to these new titles. I can’t wait to read them and share them with my middle-grade students. A compelling story is a sure-fire way to introduce history, as it engages us emotionally. It lives in the guts, so to speak. We are continuously searching for books that speak truth to racism. Thank-you for helping us by writing your review.

    Nancy Kiefer
    Library Specialist
    University Child Development School
    Seattle, WA

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