Thirteen year-old Sam Childs has a lot to live up to in his house. His father, Roland Childs, is one of the most prominent faces of the Civil Rights movement in Chicago; and his brother, Steven (Stick), has just joined the Black Panthers, much to his father’s disappointment. Sam doesn’t know who to follow. At first, Sam goes to Panther breakfasts at his school because he is hungry, but after he witnesses the brutal police beating of his brother’s best friend Bucky, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, Sam begins to wonder whether nonviolence is the path after all. The Rock and the River shows a side of the Civil Rights Movement that isn’t often portrayed in young adult literature – and the difficulty in Dr. King’s nonviolent belief in the necessity of turning the other cheek.
I don’t know how I missed this book when it was published, but somehow I did.*
It’s everything I wished One Crazy Summer could have been, as far as teaching about the Black Panthers goes. I like the story of Sam even better than Delphine’s, maybe because I like reading about boys more than girls, maybe because Sam’s has what seems to me to be a larger dilemma. Either way, The Rock and the River is one of the best Civil Rights novels I have read in a long time (and I should know, I did research for a paper that never ended up getting written in college for a class on the Nation of Islam about presence of non-nonviolent fiction for kids and young adults. There isn’t much. With the publication of this book, which won ALA’s 2008 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award, and One Crazy Summer, (on many Mock Newbery 2011 lists so far, including my own) I hope that the Nation and the Panthers start to get more positive notice in youth fiction and literature. I didn’t know a thing about the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers until I took a seminar on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. my junior year in college. We didn’t entirely focus on Dr. King – we learned about all the black Civil Rights leaders – violent and nonviolent. The class got me hooked on the Civil Rights Movement, and segued into the Nation of Islam class, which I TA’d. There’s a whole side of the CRM that isn’t taught in schools that kids should know about, and I hope some pick up this book and get started.
Alright, enough about my interest in the CRM and its “hidden” leaders. I’m going to go finish this book.