In Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles tells the story of two young boys in the summer of 1964, right after the Civil Rights Act is passed. This book received the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe new talent award for Jerome Lagarrigue and the Simon Wiesenthal “Once Upon A World Award.”
The story is told from the perspective of Young Joe who is best friends with John Henry. Young Joe does everything with John Henry–except swimming in the public swimming pool, visiting the movie theater or buying ice pops at the supermarket. Instead they help John Henry’s mother–Young John’s family’s maid–with chores around the house and swim in a local creek. Young Joe accepts that this is the way things are in the segregated South yet doesn’t see John Henry as much different from himself.
When people in Mississippi organize to enforce the Civil Rights Act and register to vote, the boys don’t realize the magnitude of their mission. The boys understand, however, how the new laws will effect them and are ecstatic to be able to do new things together–like finally swim in the glistening town pool. They run to the pool early in the morning to be the first swimmers in the newly desegregated pool. When they arrive, they watch in horror as tar fills the empty pool and workmen stomp it flat. Almost defeated, they sit up on the diving board. When Young Joe tries to comfort his friend, John Henry cries hot, angry tears and insists he wanted to swim.
Something clicks. They both have quarters. They have each other. The boys walk into the convenience store, arm in arm, to buy ice pops.
The beautiful oil paint illustrations by Jerome Lagarrigue portray the bliss, excitement and disappointment of these two children who decide not to let their society mold them. The art adds movement to the children’s laughter, pain to the city’s betrayal, and strength in the moment when Young Joe and John Henry realize they can make their own dream come true.
Deborah Wiles is also known for her 1960’s trilogy for upper elementary and middle school students, which includes another work about the Freedom Summer entitled Revolution.