Freedom Summer written by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue (2014)
Freedom Summer is a historical fictionalized story of two best friends, one white, one black, who experience the 1964 summer of freedom in Mississippi first hand. John Henry Waddell is the son of a housekeeper. Joe is his best friend and the narrator of the story. Joe waits on the fence rail for John Henry and his mama to step off the county bus and walk up the long hill to his house. Sometimes they help out by shelling butter beans or sweeping the front porch, but when John Henry’s mama has had enough of them she shoos them out to play. The boys spend the hot days playing marbles or swimming in Fiddler’s Creek. They swim in only their skin, and Joe compares their skin to the color of browned butter and the color of a pale moth that dances around the porch light. Both boys dream of becoming firemen when they grow up. But when Joe goes into Mr. Mason’s General Store to buy ice pops, John Henry doesn’t go in… he’s not allowed. Then one night over dinner, Joe hears that the town pool will open the next day to ‘everybody under the sun, no matter what color’. His mama tells him that’s the new law, ‘everybody together’ at lunch counters, rest rooms, drinking fountains, everywhere. Joe is so excited, he leaves the table and rushes to find John Henry to share the good news. The next day the boys hurry to the pool to be the first ones there. But what they find is more disturbing than anything they could have imagined. The pool had been emptied of water and was being filled with tar instead. They boys stare at the tar-filled pool and wonder why someone would want to do this. John Henry’s voice shakes as he says, “White folks don’t want colored folks in their pool.” Joe says he’s wrong, but in his heart he knows he’s right. Joe wants to be able to do everything with his best friend, John Henry. He wants to go to the Dairy Dip, the picture shows, and see the town through John Henry’s eyes. On their way home, the boys stop again at Mr. Mason’s store for ice pops. But this time, John Henry wants to pick one out for himself. So they ‘walk through the front door together’.
Deborah Wiles first wrote and published this story in 2001. The copy I read was published in 2014, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964. It is a powerful story written so that even young children can understand the gravity of the situation. The text is authentic to the time period and the emotions of the people living it are clearly understood.
Jerome Lagarrigue illustrated the story with honest realism. The colors are muted and the lines indistinct, giving the overall appearance of looking back through time and memories.
I absolutely love this story and highly recommend it. Because it is fiction, the reader can put him/herself in the story. These are events that did happen and might have happened to anyone living in the 1960’s. At the end of the story the boys go arm in arm into the general store. We don’t know if John Henry was allowed to buy his own ice pop or if the boys were turned away, but we are left with hope. The pool had been filled to keep from being integrated, but did the boys experience smaller acts of acceptance? The author and illustrator leave us with that possibility. It’s easy to believe that Joe and John Henry were able to go to more public places together that summer and that the innocence of friendship could lead to a stronger bond of brotherhood.