A former librarian friend of mine used to ensure that their school library’s shelves carried multicultural books. Unfortunately, she found that very few students in her predominantly white school checked them out. Now that the school has become more culturally diverse, the multicultural books apparently have become more popular. I wondered a lot about her observation while researching the amount of diversity which could be found in children’s literature for a recent graduate course. And I thought a lot about it while rereading Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor, because it’s clearly about a life very different from my European American one.
When I first encountered Let the Circle Be Unbroken as a teenager, I didn’t hate it; I just didn’t connect with it. Connection is a critical word here. It’s one of the major reasons I cited in my research paper for why, in our increasingly globalized world, educators should introduce students to diverse literature. To my shame, in my seven years as a teacher, I’ve taught students with backgrounds as diverse as African-American, Arabic, Mexican, and Native American, but most of the literature I’ve acquainted them with has been European American. Unintentionally, I have been guilty of conveying the idea to my students that the only identity which is important is that of my own. I’ve failed them by not providing them with books to which they could connect on a cultural level. Yet that whole concept of connection is kind of ironic. When my dad read books about racism as part of his graduate studies, I disengaged from that literature due to its lack of relevance to me as a young adult in a predominantly white community. Given that it’s taken me until my forties to broaden my reading tastes, how do I encourage my European American students to read outside of their comfort zone? For that matter, how do I encourage my African-American students to read Mexican literature, etc.?
Oh, there are certainly ways that I connect to Let the Circle Be Unbroken. For example, in the first chapter, main character Cassie Logan covets a marble that belongs to Sun-Boy. It’s a beauty, with “a penetrating blue swirling through an island of misty emerald green”. Even when her dad forbids Cassie and her siblings to play marbles because it can lead to such troubles as cheating or gambling, Cassie is determined to win Sun-Boy’s blue marble. I remember well my childhood days of shooting marbles, collecting them, and drooling over the prettiest. Cassie and I share other commonalities too. For example, after a disagreement with her uncle, Cassie initially feels awkward around him. He seeks her out on the back porch and suggests a game of horseshoes. While I don’t recall playing horseshoes as a child, there were plenty of other games that my relations and I played. One can rarely play games for long before feeling competitive or chatty or experiencing some other emotion that breaks tensions that might exist. Some other connections might be smaller, but they’re just as memorable and real. All the Logan children used to help in their family’s cotton fields. Me, I helped with the yard work and sure do relate to Cassie’s sentiment: “More than anything I hated weeding. It was sweaty, tiring work ….”
Yet there are many troubling ways in which I’ll never be able to connect to Taylor’s stories, which are based on her father’s childhood. For example, when the Logan children sneak off to view a trial in the nearby town of Strawberry, Cassie innocently shows her younger brother to the public men’s bathroom and then takes a drink herself of the public water fountain. When a friend forcibly pushes Cassie away, she gets upset at him until her older brother explains, “The water in there and them toilets, they belong to white folks, and the white folks don’t want no colored folks using neither one. Somebody had caught y’all, we’d be in a real mess of trouble. Papa says folks done get killed for less.” Then there’s the trial itself, which is for T.J. whom readers will have met in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Some folks felt happy that at least T.J. was going to get a trial, but Cassie’s mom cautions that the jury would be made of white people, the lawyers would be white, and the judge would be white, and so it was still a done deal. T.J. would get the electric chair. As the Logan children mature, other contentious issues arise too such as biracial marriage. Cassie’s Cousin Bud visits from the North and announces that he has married a white woman. This invokes racism on both sides. Cousin Bud sadly observes that from people’s reactions, it feels as if he’s stuck a knife in them. No one can understand how he can love a white woman. But Cousin Bud’ sentiment is tame in contrast to that of Uncle Hammer who declares about white men, “They think every man in the world wants one of their women, and if a colored man even looks sideways at one of them, they start talking about lynching.” Even Cassie’s dad concurs, going as far as to say, “They leave us alone, we leave them alone. It wouldn’t worry me one bit if a whole year would go by and I wouldn’t have to see one of them.” As tough as that is for me to read as a white person, when I read of all the outbreaks of racially-inspired violence faced by the Logan family, I understand the sentiment.
But, it’s also about the time that I start wondering again. In a review my husband wrote of the picture book Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, he posed these thoughts: “Should four-year-olds be reading about slavery? Some would say yes. Some would say no. I think I’ll leave it at that, other than to say that I enjoyed my years of blissful ignorance concerning racism when I was younger. And yet I am well aware that such ignorance is a luxury that is not enjoyed equally by all.” In defense of Henry’s Freedom Box, I grew up less blissfully ignorant because the stories I read in books or watched on television had clued me into the nastiness of racism. Then there is that concept again of connection. Just because I grew up white doesn’t exclude the need for books to validate the heritage of those who grew up African-American. I also think there are moments in history which we should never forget. The question though that my husband brought up does become valid here: At what age do we start talking about prejudice (which can be shown in more ways than just racism)? A part of me remembers that as a teenager I didn’t understand half of the ideas presented in Let the Circle Be Unbroken, not enough at least to reread the book. Oh, I readily grasped the concept of the strength of family, but not so much all the economic and political aspects–which is why books like it often failed back then to engage me. On the other hand, perhaps in some measure books like it prepared me for facing the stench of racism during my college years in the South.
This is a very different type of review for me. The thing is, while I enjoyed Let the Circle Be Unbroken and think it’s an important book about a grave historical time, I’m not sure which feeling is the stronger one. It’s always good and informational to read books that shed light on real events. These type of books help shape what we believe and thereby help determine who we become. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily the ones we pick up when we’re looking for an enjoyable read. This is why I’m spending so much time wondering about the issues presented in Let the Circle Be Unbroken instead of writing a straightforward literary analysis. Although Let the Circle Be Unbroken is classified as a juvenile book, it’s very heavy at times. I do realize that kids can read pretty intense books, yet I know that my appreciation is much stronger now for Let the Circle Be Unbroken because of a greater awareness of the historical situations within. That brings me back to the observation of my librarian friend, of how white kids were ignoring the multicultural books. I suspect this is what they might do with Let the Circle Be Unbroken; yet it’s such as important and well-written book that I hope it will get read.
My rating?Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
CLASP founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It was established by in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie.
The Christy Awards are awarded each year to recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples. It is given to African American authors and illustrator.
children and young adult blogger literacy awards
Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award was initiated in 2000 to recognize authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with deve
Hans Christian Anderson Award
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards is given to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. The award is the highest international recognition an author can receive.
Kate Greenaway Medal
The Kate Greenaway Medal was established in 1955, for distinguished illustration in a book for children. It is named after the popular nineteenth century artist known for her fine children’s illustrations and designs.
Middle East Book Award
The Middle East Book Award recognizes quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the Middle East and its component societies and cultures.
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award
Honors fantasy books for younger readers, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia
Newbery Medal Award
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Pura Belpré Award
The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. It is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino experience.
Red House Book Award
The Red House Children’s Book Award is a series of literary prizes for works of children’s literature published during the previous year in England.
Sydney Taylor Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.