The Cruisers is by prolific author and poet Walter Dean Myers. It is more accessible to a younger audience–upper elementary and middle school as opposed to high school/young adult–than his usual work. It is appropriate for grades 4-8, depending on the dynamics of each particular group/individual reader(s). The main character is in 8th Grade.
This book looks at race and slavery as kids in the middle school divide into North & South for a Civil War project. This particular plot is not unique, in that there are documented instances of similar projects/experiments in schools and community and research projects. Myers’ book, however, is unique in its approach and the genuine voices of his characters.
The middle school students at the upper echelon school of the story are not terribly excited about the Civil War project and view it as simply that–an assignment through which to grit your teeth and end up with a good grade. End of story. The students, themselves, are taken slightly by surprise when their own reactions and responses (and those of students around them) are on a much bigger and more intense scale than they had anticipated. The story brings up hard but important questions about race and our relationships with each other while remaining true to the middle school characters telling the story.
It raises questions for students about race in terms of the Civil War era AND its applications to our present-day lives. Recognizing and examining some of these issues from both cognitive and emotional angles in a manner that is authentic, understandable, and effective for elementary and middle school readers is difficult and sorely lacking in our lexicon of children’s literature. Myers has done a brilliant job of accomplishing these goals. (I wish I had had access to this work when I was ten years old.)
This is an excellent discussion book at home or as part of Black History or Civil War lesson units. I firmly believe that this is the kind of story that can make a difference on many levels in our development as individuals in a society riddled with both global and neighborhood influences.