Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
John Henry Waddell is young Joe's best friend. They help John Henry's mamma do chores together, shoot marbles together, chase cats together, dream of being firemen together, and swim in Fiddler's Creek together. But it's 1964, and John Henry can't swim in the public pool with Joe because of the color of his skin, so Joe and he swim together at the creek. When they go into town together, Joe has to go into Mr. Mason's General Store for ice pops for both of them because John Henry cannot come in.
But it's 1964 and there's a new law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Joe's parents tell him that the pool has to open to everyone tomorrow because of the new law. Joe can hardly wait to tell John Henry. Together they plan to go swim at the pool. It has been one of John Henry's dreams.
The next morning they reach the pool early but find that the county trucks are filling in the pool and asphalting the top. John Henry's big brother, one of the county workers, sends them home. John Henry's eyes fill with disappointment but Joe thinks of a way to ease the pain though he can't put it into words.
Wiles based her story on her experiences of visiting in the South during the summer of 1964. She does a good job describing the disparity between the races in the parents' treatment of John Henry and his mother, but the boys' friendship represents freshness, equality, and full empathy.
Jerome Lagarrigue's oil paintings, some traditional and some almost modernistic, catch the empathy, the hope, the disappointment, and most of all, the friendship of the two boys. My six year old didn't understand the colors and proportions of some of the paintings, but older students may be more sophisticated in their understanding.
The reading level is for the early grades. This could be a thought-provoking book to read aloud and discuss with students. It is both gentle and painful but offers opportunities to discuss how the children, probably third- and fourth-grade students, can treat everyone with justice and how injustice feels and the importance of laws enforcing fairness. Children at younger ages may have trouble empathizing or putting their ideas into words.
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