Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the Newbery winner in 1977, was another book that I avoided reading when I was young. As a child I preferred fantasy and tidy endings, and I suspected that this book was not going to deliver anything close to a happy ending. And I was right, because, this book was certainly very grim. But it was also vividly written, heartbreaking, and an amazing piece of literature for young people. Being a book about a black family living in Mississippi during the Depression it makes sense that the book is almost unrelenting in its bleakness. These are experiences that all too many children were forced to live through in that time and place, and it would have been dishonest to write a story that was all sunshine and lollipops. I think it is interesting that there was a huge kerfluffle a few years ago when The Higher Power of Lucky won the Newbery medal and people were mad because it used the word scrotum. Yet only thirty years before, this book was able (and rightfully!) to win the medal despite using the n-word, discussing lynching, and depicting scenes of people who had been burned alive.
Despite the unforgiving look at a depressing and distressing topic, I thought the book did an excellent job of staying within the realm of a children’s book. Cassie, the narrator, is nine years old, and she understands things as a child would. Much of the book is her coming to terms with suddenly realizing how the world works. While a part of me wonders how she hasn’t noticed these things before, I can also accept that she was both sheltered by her parents and that she may have been willfully ignoring them in the way only children can do. Once her eyes are opened each new discrimination is an equal shock. While I will certainly recommend this book to young readers, I also recommend that parents or teachers read along. This is an incredibly intense book and I suspect that children will need some help in trying to process some of the more upsetting aspects.