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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Bridges, Ruby Through My Eyes;Scholastic, 1999. 64p  illus. with photographs
ISBN 0-590-18923-9   $16.95    Gr. 4 up

The importance of viewpoint to history is a well-acknowledged fact these days. Books such as Jim Murphy's The Great Fire (BCCB 5/95) address the issue directly by examining different, sometimes conflicting views, leaving us wiser about how history is made, and recorded, and remembered. Through My Eyes takes a historic event that we've seen from the outside and shows us the inside, allowing Ruby Bridges, who was the cynosure of media eyes at six years old when she integrated a New Orleans grade school in 1960, to tell her own story from an adult perspective.

We saw this story a few years ago in Robert Coles' picture book The Story of Ruby Bridges (BCCB 3/95), but this approach is deeper and richer without being remotely abstruse or forbidding. The style is simple and matter-of-fact, and it's astonishingly successful in bringing the first-grader's historic experience to life and rescuing it from becoming purely a symbol fraught with more meaning than reality. The author's unique perspective allows her to expand and complicate the chronicle with details, such as the fact that representatives from the NAACP "pressured my parents," that the gathering of policemen and protesters gave an air of importance to the school that made her think that she was going to college, that her adoration for her white Bostonian teacher left her with a Northern accent, that when a white boy refused to play with her because of his mother's proscription, she understood ("I would have done the same thing. If my mama told me not to do something, I didn't do it").

The book doesn't stop at the famous photographs (which will be unfamiliar to many young readers anyway) but also gives readers a picture of what it was like to move from being the target of frenzied anger outside the school to being the cherished single student of a dedicated teacher once over the threshold. Bridges' restrained narration of her experience undercuts all the romanticization: eschewing any tendency to make herself heroic, she instead makes it clear that she acted as a dutiful child and bright student with little awareness of larger political implications (she recalls skipping rope to anti-integration chants, completely oblivious to their meaning). The book also fills in the chronicle with context of which Ruby was unaware at the time: the legal and social underpinnings of this dramatic moment (a timeline is included), the toll this action took on her family, the battle fought by the few white parents who kept their children in the integrated schools, and the celebrity attention from people such as John Steinbeck and Norman Rockwell.

Each spread sports a thematic title and provides relevant quotes (from other people involved as well as from news accounts) and photographs, which feature the events and principal players in rich brown tones that add a period flavor as well as contributing to the smooth integrity of the pages' appearance. The images remain memorable, and the book uses them to great impact with photographs on every page. Readers will get a first-hand look at both the jeering crowds and the bandbox-neat Ruby in her white knee socks and tidy Mary Janes towered over by somber men in dark suits.

It often seems like a sound-bite, flash-in-the-pan, fifteen-minutes-of-fame world these days; kids might be forgiven for believing that, in some ironic reversal of the secret life of animated toys, spotlighted people only have lives while one looks at them, and their existences freeze the moment the camera turns away. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is its clear demonstration that this event was part of a larger history that is one individual's life. Dignified, devout, and decorous-but never stiff-Bridges tells of her life beyond that historic moment, discussing how she was and wasn't changed, how she since then has rejoiced in triumphs (a happy marriage and four children) and suffered sadnesses (the divorce of her parents not long after-and a probable consequence of-her groundbreaking school attendance; the death of her younger brother). The effect is to weave a dramatic episode into a larger current of history, much of it privately experienced (Bridges remarks that the distancing of time meant she didn't recognize herself in documentary film footage of the event) but all of it valid, worthy, and significant. No tired "Whatever happened to . . . " title, this is a compelling look at history as a living thing, focusing on one memorable individual unknowingly caught momentarily in the historical spotlight.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
January's Bulletin cover illustration from
Through My Eyes,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Scholastic Press.



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