Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Story of Ruby Bridges (Book Review)

Title: The Story of Ruby Bridges
Author: Robert Coles  
Publication: Scholastic Hardcover, 1995
Genre: Picture Book/Nonfiction
Plot: This is a children’s version of the real story about Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African American who integrated the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Each day she had to walk by angry, vicious protesters as she was escorted by federal marshals to her classroom. The white parents kept their children home so Ruby was taught alone by Barbara Henry. Brought up by a religious family that was proud of what they realized was her place in history, Ruby handled the pressure with dignity and grace beyond her years, praying for the protesters as she passed them each morning. Eventually, other African American children joined her at the school, and after several years, the white families sent their children back to school. Ruby graduated from this elementary school and from high school, and brought up her own family in New Orleans as well.

Audience: This is a great story to introduce civil rights issues to small children, as it is a dramatic story with a winsome heroine that hints at the underlying violence but is not too scary.

My Impressions: This is a wonderful story for all ages about the brave Bridges family: a mother who was determined her daughter would make history, and had brought up this small child to pray for her enemies and have the strength to walk by them every day. Coles captures both the incredible loneliness of Ruby’s situation and her great dignity, as she marched past her tormentors, clutching her lunch box. I am not sure a modern child used to an integrated classroom could even begin to understand why it was such a volatile issue or comprehend the viciousness of the adults who yelled death threats at Ruby. Of course, my own City of Boston had its own shameful episode during its court-ordered desegregation when white adults threw rocks at buses bringing African-American children to South Boston. As in this book, people blamed the judge instead of their own racist attitudes.

The existing teachers from the Frantz School refused to teach in an integrated school, so Ruby was taught by the amazing Barbara Henry, a teacher from Boston, whose sons later went to school with my brother. Mrs. Henry taught Ruby alone for a year before other children joined the classroom. Here is a link to the Boston Globe interview about her experience. I knew Mrs. Henry as a kind family friend long before I learned about her courage and willingness to sacrifice her own safety to advance the civil rights of African American children in the South. I love that she attributes her outstanding education at then Girls’ Latin in Boston as instilling respect for all, regardless of race or background. My sister-in-law’s niece Parker is a seventh grader at Boston Latin Academy, as it is now known, and I hope her experience there will be as enriching.

Last year, the Friends of Roslindale Branch Library, of which I am part, formed a Racial Justice and Inclusiveness Committee to plan educational events, discussions, and presentations related to race, ethnicity, religion and culture. We have had good attendance at the first events and are considering a children’s event which inspired me to read this book. Click here for more information and a schedule of events.

Note that on March 30, 2017 the Roslindale Library will be discussing Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk which was highly recommended by one of our committee members.

Ruby Bridges was escorted by federal marshals to her classroom each day
Source: I checked out this book from the Boston Public Library. There are a number of books about Ruby Bridges but I recognized the name of Pulitzer-prize winning Robert Coles, so chose this one. I did not know that as a child psychiatrist he had offered to provide counseling to Ruby and met with her weekly during her first year of school (he was stationed in Biloxi). One of my greatest academic regrets is not taking advantage of the opportunity to study with him in college.

2 comments:

GSGreatEscaper said...

During my tenure at the Girls' Latin School Alumnae Association I was honored to meet Barbara Henry and present her with our Outstanding Alumna Award. She spoke warmly about her experience with Ruby, the Bridges family and Robert Coles. A wonderful woman, a wise child, a wonderful story. I'm glad there's this new book for children who won't have the personal connection to this story that those of my generation have.

BLA, like GLS, is a school that is representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Boston. All of my classmates agree that being exposed to that diversity was a great experience, and I hope your young relative has a good experience too. She won't have to take as much Latin as we did, though! Shame....

CLM said...

That is so nice, Deb! I hope we can have a Ruby Bridges event at the library and ask her to speak.

I attended the BLA graduation last year and was impressed by the diversity of the student body and sense of pride by their families. Alas, my assignment was telling these nice families they could not bring oversized balloons into the Northeastern Arena! We tied them up outside and some got stolen. I think Parker is doing well and running track.