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Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Young Adult Readers

REVOLUTION by Deborah Wiles

revolutionI am split in my opinion of Deborah Wiles’ Revolution.  The main character is Sunny, a 13-year-old white girl living in Greenwood Mississippi in the summer of 1964.  14-yr-old Raymond Bullis, a young black man living in the Baptist Town–the “colored” area of the small city occasionally trades narrations with Sunny.  Sunny lives with her father, her stepmother, older stepbrother, Gilette, and her younger stepsister, Audrey.  Raymond lives with his parents; his older sister has died before the beginning of the story due to a ruptured appendix when no white doctor would treat her at the hospital.

The summer of 1964 was dubbed “Freedom Summer” as those who were fighting for equality between races in the United States went en masse into the southern states–particularly Mississippi–to encourage and help black Americans register to vote.  There were a lot of young college-age students (white and black) who often stayed in the homes of the local black residents.

Sunny’s mother left when she was an infant and when she sees a young “agitator” named JoEllen–who happens to be staying with Raymond’s family during the summer–she is struck by how much she resembles the only picture she has of her mother at age 18.  Sunny’s drive to meet and then be around JoEllen also leads her to become embroiled in JoEllen’s and Raymond’s actions during that difficult summer.

Revolution seems to want to tell us a story of the advent of Civil Rights in the southern United States through the different perspectives of Sunny and Raymond.  There are many moments where the book succeeds in doing just that.  Unfortunately the story often gets lost in or sidetracked by rhetoric–which is never as effective a teacher or communicator as personal stories.

At 495+ pages Revolution takes too long to get where it is going.  It abruptly interrupts the stories of Sunny and Raymond to divert attention to nonfiction pieces about the politics of the time as well as well-known (and not-so-well-known) historical figures important in the Civil Rights movement in the United States.  When the book DOES return to Sunny and Raymond the pacing is very slow.  The pacing doesn’t hit a nice stride until about page 400.

Revolution could perhaps be a nice addition to an upper middle or high school classroom discussing the Civil Rights movement in historical, cultural or sociological context because it offers a teacher the opportunity to bring examples of personal narratives into factual material.  On its own, Revolution tries to do the same thing in  reverse.  It is, ultimately, unsuccessful if it is indeed intended for a young adult audience.  It is a shame because once trimmed of its excesses Revolution is a moving story of two young people:  one fighting for the right to feel he can stand among others replete in himself as an individual alone, and one realizing she can allow compassion and empathy into her life, which opens everyone involved to a greater life.

At its heart Revolution has the power to open its readers up to the idea that fear, and the hate born from it, can be defeated by courage and compassion.  My concern is that they will neither find nor read Revolution independently.  Young people will probably benefit most from Revolution when they are led to it–and through it–by a passionate teacher or other older role model.  In this guided context or as an independent reading choice for someone passionately interested in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in the U.S. Revolution will have its greatest impact.

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