22 October 2010

Cybils Nominee: Busing Brewster

There are many things I like about this picture book by Richard Michelson and illustrated by R.G. Roth, which I will detail shortly. But first, a personal commentary. As many of my readers know, I am a proud Bostonian (despite the fact that I've spent far too much time in the suburbs.) The issue of busing children to desegregate white and black schools was a hugely contentious issue in Boston--one of the cities less impressive legacies--when it was implemented in the 1970's. I was growing up in Hyde Park at the time, a neighborhood Wikipedia called "an urban location with suburban details." That's not a bad way of describing the place, although driving through the area now it seems much more ethnically diverse than any suburban town I can think of. After I read Busing Brewster,  I had a thought. I rang up my mom and asked her, "You know when you and Dad sent me to parochial school? Were you trying to keep me from being bused?" And indeed they were.

So there you have it--my life story intersecting with history, although I was never aware of it. Perhaps if I'd been forced to take an hour's ride back and forth on a bus each day, it might have made more of an impact on me. As it was, I just went along to school unaware of the bigger picture.

Brewster is initially like that. He doesn't understand the political implication of what is happening to him, but does see the biggest picture of all. The one with him in the center of it. Point number one that I love about this book: the front cover. Brewster strides across the front with bold steps, USA lunchbox swinging by his side. That bus is a big ole opportunity for Brewster, and he can't wait. Even though his older brother, Bryan, scares him a little with his anger at the situation; even though he has to get up at 5:30 a.m. for the long bus ride; even when the bus is greeted by angry white picketers at his new school--Brewster is aware that something special could happen for him. Brewster and his brother aren't at the school a full day before they manage to attract trouble, but even that turns outs to be a lucky break for Brewster, because detention is in the library.

Which brings us to point number two that I love about this book: the power of a school librarian! Miss O'Grady's the best sort of librarian, too, because she doesn't judge. Brewster can't read, but he knows he needs to because he might be president of the United States. Miss O'Grady doesn't laugh when Brewster tells her this, despite the odds stacked so high against him that even he recognizes them. She simply sets to work teaching him how to read. She solicits a promise from Brewster to come and see her everyday, which guarantees the young boy--and all the children--a safe and equal place to go, even when the difficulties of his school situation seem dark. And judging from the rocks that rain on the bus as it approaches the school, and the parents of white students who speak hatefully in front of him, and the sense at the end of the book that he doesn't want to worry his mother--Brewster is becoming aware that his great new opportunity will come with a struggle.

Point number three: the artwork of R.G. Roth. I am not familiar with any of his other works (though of course I should be!) so I can't say if this is indicative of his style. But the illustrations immediately draw to mind the work of Ezra Jack Keats, who left a remarkable legacy of picture books depicting urban children in day to day situations which resonated with joy and promise. Roth's use of collage in particular emphasizes the way this social experiment was pieced together. It is certainly hoped that the pieces come together with joy and promise for Brewster.

As a final point, Michelson's Author's Note tells a story of its own. After briefly outlining the controversy surrounding forced busing, he discuses how Busing Brewster was written in 2003, when the idea of an African American president still seemed like a pipe dream. He writes, "My words have taken on a greater resonance than I intended, which is what authors hope for." While this particular dream has become a reality in the time between writing the book and publishing it, what will constantly be a goal for which to strive, and is the overriding message of this book, is that when a child is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential, the influence of good people--rather than good intentions--can never be underestimated.


Pam Tee said...

Beautiful review. You've convinced me that this is an important book that my kids need to read. I'm going to buy it, read it with them, and then donate it to our school library.


The Bumbles said...

Oh I soooo loved The Snowy Day by Keats - I give that book to all of my nieces and nephews. Books that teach tolerance - and situations different from our world - are wonderful.

Carol said...

I loved BUSING BREWSTER and actually nominated it for the CYBILS. It didn't make it into the finals, but it's still one of my favorites! I loved seeing it through someone else's eyes.

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