Allison's Book Bag

The Friendship by Mildred Taylor

Posted on: June 16, 2012

The Friendship by Mildred Taylor is a deceptively simple book. Being about fifty pages, with bigger print and many illustrations, you’d think it most suited to primary-aged students. Yet The Friendship doesn’t pussyfoot around its portrayal of racism. Moreover, it includes an event that still seems shocking almost twenty-five years after the book’s publication.

If you have ever gazed longingly at rows of candy jars, you might relate to how one day Cassie Logan and her three brothers visit the Wallace store and spot three large jars on the countertop. One is filled with lemon drops, another with licorice, and a third with candy canes. Makes one’s mouth water! Then something gleaming and shining catches their attention. Seems like just another summer day, doesn’t it? Yet it’s not, because the Logans are shopping in a store that their parents have forbidden them to enter. Now one of the sons of the store owner is hollering at Little Man to get his dirty hands off the glass. And by dirty, he doesn’t mean grubby but black. What I love about Mildred Taylor’s style is how she lulls one into thinking she’s writing a cozy story, in the way a fisherman uses a shiny lure to attract a fish. What I love about Mildred Taylor’s style is the way she dangles an innocent and cozy scene before the reader, slowly twitching her lure to lull them into a false sense of comfort. The reader starts to suspect that something isn’t quite right, but only when they are hooked does Taylor reveal just how dark her tale is. You see, if there is one thing I’ve come to realize about Taylor’s books is that there rarely is anything typical about them.

I also appreciate that Taylor’s descriptions are clean and straightforward. In contrast to some authors, her prose is not belabored, long-winded, or purple. Yet she also doesn’t skimp on details. For example, here is the portrait she paints of Mr. Tom Bee: “We ran into Mr. Tom Bee carrying a fishing pole and two strings of fish. Mr. Tom Bee was an elderly, toothless man who had a bit of sharecropping land….” And here is the picture she paints of the Wallace store: “The store was small, not nearly as large as it had looked from the outside peering in. Farm supplies and household and food goods were sparsely displayed on the shelves and counters and the floor space too….” Taylor provides just enough sensory details to make her characters and settings feel real. Her descriptions are also deceptively simple. (Yes, there’s that phrase again.) I was surprised that the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale considered the above paragraphs to be at the ninth-grade reading level. Something else to consider, before relegating The Friendship to primary-aged students.

It might come as no surprise that the theme of the book is friendship, but it might surprise you how that theme is explored. For example, there is the scene where Mr. Tom Bee gives the Logan children candy. He also offers a piece to Jeremy Simms, who unlike Mr. Tom Bee is white. Jeremy is a character who figures in many of Mildred Taylor’s books. He acts friendly to the Logans, but their friendship is never an easy one. In this particular scenario, Jeremy hesitates at the offer. When he finally accepts the candy, he only says thank you with his eyes. And he never does eat the candy. Yet this is an insignificant example of how difficult friendship was between whites and blacks in the 1930’s in Mississippi compared to the confrontation between store owner John Wallace and Mr. Tom Bee. All I’ll tell you is that it came down to the proper use of names—and maybe what it means to show respect and true friendship.

I’ll also suggest that younger children shouldn’t read The Friendship on their own. That sentiment is actually one that I have come to feel about all of Mildred Taylor’s books. Oh, I agree with reviewers that Mildred Taylor is a formidable presence in children’s literature. Moreover, her books are definitely educational, important, and even exciting. Yet it’s clear from some reviews written by younger readers that I’m not off-base in my opinion that her books should be discussed with adults. That way they can be put into the context of the continuing evolution of the relationship between whites and blacks.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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