Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: Dear America: With the Might of Angels: The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson, Hadley Virginia, 1954 (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Release date:  September 1, 2011

The newest in Scholastic's relaunch of its beloved Dear America series, this book by award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the story of Dawnie Rae Johnson, a fictional twelve-year old Virginia girl who's the first to desegregate an all white school in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Dawnie tells us she's always been blessed with the gift of gab, so a diary is a perfect birthday gift, especially prized since it was made by her little brother, Goober.  It seems her dream is coming true when she finds out she's going to attend Prettyman Colburn, Hadley's white school, instead of the "colored" school, Bethune, where everything is broken, from the books to the toilets to the clocks.  Dawnie's especially bright, and dreams of becoming a doctor one day, although she's never seen a colored doctor or nurse either.  After passing an especially difficult test with flying colors, she's one of the students tapped by the NAACP to start the school integration process in their town.

Dawnie will need every bit of her courage and resolve, as she is confronted by demonstrations, small children spitting at her, adults calling her names, and police escorts needed just to get her into the school building.  No one will talk to her, and she spends the first day in the principal's office.  Dawnie writes in her diary, "By most counts, I'm a normal girl.  But with the way those kids were staring at me today, you'da thought I was a bearded lady at the Lee County Carnival."  But that's not her only problem, as her daddy loses her job when locals don't want to support a business that employs someone whose daughter is desegregating their schools.  About the only people nice to her at school are the colored custodian and the lunch ladies, and Gertie Feldman, a Jewish student at the school.  Will Dawnie be able to triumph in this hostile environment?

While both Andrea Davis Pinkney's heroine and the setting of Hadley, Virginia, are fictional, the narrative was inspired by several different integration stories, including one involving the author's own cousin.  Pinkney herself was the only black student at her very first grade school, although her experience was not as harsh as Dawnie's.  Pinkney incorporates many real historical events into her story, including the Montgomery bus protest of Claudette Colvin, the debut of Sports Illustrated magazine, and Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball.  Dawnie Rae's distinctive and colorful voice and personality help bring this important period in our history to life for young people today.  It's a must for school and public libraries, as well as all fans of the Dear America series.

Like the other Dear America volumes, back matter includes a historical note on American in 1954, as well as brief biographies of real people mentioned in Dawnie Rae's diary, a Civil Rights timeline, and an "about the author" note describing her background and her research on this topic.

Pinkney remarks in the author's note:  "I wrote this book to remind young readers of the great privilege they enjoy--that of attending any school they wish, with classmates of all races--and to show them that even in the harshest situations, hope can shine through the darkest days."

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.


Rebecca Herman said...

I love this series, but I had a hard time getting into this book and it took me like 2 weeks to finish because I kept putting it down. I was just bored because the main character kept talking about sports and I am the least athletic person on the planet and gym class was torture to me. I do think a lot of readers will enjoy it but it just wasn't for me. Hoping I enjoy the next book in the series more.

Anonymous said...

The Dear America series has been around for quite awhile. It can be hard to get students to pay attention to them, but young girls interested in history really do enjoy them.