Top 100 Children’s Novels #32: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
This series took me to a time and place so different from my reality. It opened my eyes and made me think. – Martha Sherod
As with all my polls, there is often a shocking derth of authors of color. However, there was never any doubt in my mind that Mildred Taylor’s classic novel would make the list somewhere. I was pleased as punch to see it crest the Top 50 to rest at #32. This is certainly one of the best novels in the whole of children’s literature, as many a child and adult can attest.
The synopsis from B&N reads, “Set in a small town in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this powerful, moving novel deals with issues of prejudice, courage, and self-respect. It is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is also the story of Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to her family. The racial tension and harrowing events experienced by young Cassie, her family, and her neighbors cause Cassie to grow up and discover the reality of her environment.”
In 100 Best Books for Children Anita Silvey tells of Taylor’s saga in this way: “Mildred Taylor had unsuccessfully tried to reconstruct her family history, and then she heard about a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Booksl After attempting to write a piece using the voice of her father, she shifted the storytelling to a young girl, Cassie Logan, four days before the contest deadline. That shift and the resulting book, Song of the Trees, won the contest for Taylor. On the way home from the award ceremony, Taylor heard from her father and uncle the story of a black boy who had broken into a store and how he was saved from lynching. Taylor began to tell that saga, one that she thought might make an adult book. It turned out to be a book many children’s literature critics consider the most important historical novel in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
Much of the book is based in reality. In fact, to keep her land, the land discussed so often in her books, Ms. Taylor eventually “sold the typewriter on which she had written Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
Silvey says too that “the novel has become the most popular children’s book written by a black writer, selling close to 3 million copies in paperback.”
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, author Ann Martin credits this book as the one that meant the most to her. She says, “I was exposed to, and distinctly remember, many classic picture books. But the most moving children’s book I’ve ever read was one I encountered as an adult, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I read it for the first time around 1980, and then I was struck by the story itself, by its messages. Rereading it twenty-five years later, I was able to look at it with a writer’s eye, and I was struck anew.”
In the Slate article Great Kids’ Books About Financial Ruin, a passage is dedicated to this particular book. In it, Slate argues that, “it wasn’t until the recession of the late 1970s that there was a strong resurgence in stories about economic woes,” and, “The book’s message to kids of the ’70s was: If you think the Great Depression was just about a bunch of old white men losing their shirts in the stock market, think again.”
It won the 1977 Newbery Medal, beating out Abel’s Island by William Steig and A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond.
Just in time 100 Scope Notes creates a new cover for the book. An interesting direction.
And artist Bryce Christian Lowry created his own take:
Big covers, little covers, lots of covers abound for this particular title.
And there was a 1978 TV movie filmed of this book. Morgan Freeman played Uncle Hammer in it. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any clips of it online. Give it time. It’ll show up one of these days.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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