author: Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick Press, 2018
It’s the school year of 1969-1970. “The Vietnam War,” known in Vietnam as “The American War,” has been raging for 15 years. The US is continuing to drop millions of tons of bombs on three small countries. US soldiers had massacred some 500 Vietnamese villagers, including children and babies, in a tiny hamlet called My Lai. US campuses are erupting: Ohio National Guardsmen kill four Kent State students and wound nine, and a few days later, police kill two Jackson State students and wound a dozen more.
And, as another war—the war for human and civil rights—continues to be fought in this country, the music of Sly and the Family Stone becomes an anthem that resonates with millions of young people:
For the things you know are right.
It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight.
All the things you want are real.
You have you to complete and there is no deal.
Stand. Stand. Stand.
This school year is Argentinian-born Luisa (“Lu”) Olivera’s year in the middle. She’s entering sixth grade in an Alabama school that’s newly integrated by law but segregated by social reality: Black students are seated on one side of the classroom and white students on the other; and a few, like Lu and her white friend, Sam, sit in the middle.
Lu also admires Belinda Gresham, the school’s star track-runner, who’s always either reading or hanging out with her friends, Angie and Willa. But around here, Lu says, “black and white kids don’t mix. No siree bob.”
As Lu dreams of fitting in and running track like her idol, Olympic champion Madeline Manning, she’s confused. The notorious segregationist, George Wallace, is running for re-election and, most of the “mean girls”—popular, white, and racist—will soon be transferring to a nearby whites-only private school. They call Lu, “Loser Olivera,” and taunt her mercilessly.
As the school year progresses, Lu becomes more aware of her surroundings and of the choices she must make:
What’s really got me worried is crossing over a line I’m not supposed to cross, if [white] people see me getting friendly with Belinda and Angie. I’m already on the outs as it is, being Loser Olivera and all.
Throughout the story, Lu witnesses racist remarks and actions from white students and adults. A bully mocks Lu’s people as “dark-headed spinach speakers.” A sales clerk loudly objects to Belinda’s trying on a headband. A classmate’s parent is “counting on Wallace putting everything back the way it used to be.”
“Oh, Lord,” Lu says to herself, “I’m finally catching on, and it’s a scary, sinking feeling, like quicksand under my feet.” Meanwhile, Lu’s own immigrant parents are “worrywarts,” her older sister encourages her activism; and Belinda invites her to visit her neighborhood, where “nobody seems to think it’s strange that two girls, one black and one not, would ride bikes together.”
When Lu’s classmate, Spider, tells her why he plays “Stand” on a local Black radio show every afternoon—“That’s just me trying to get the message out…to whoever needs to hear it…. To open their minds to what’s real, dig?”—she takes a stab at the concept:
If you listen to the words of “Stand!” it’s all about…well, standing up against things that are wrong, speaking up for the truth, and not just sitting around on your duff when you know better.
Shortly after a classroom confrontation in which Charles loudly calls out Miss Garret about an extra-credit assignment—“Those of you who attended the Wallace rally have an excellent topic”—that in fact discriminates against the Black students, Lu’s friend Sam picks up his books and moves over to the Black section.
“I’m sitting over here from now on, if that’s okay with y’all,” he says to Spider, (who) gives him a high five, then a low five and another high five. “Out of sight! Welcome to the sunny side of the street, brother!”
After the teacher tries to stall the inevitable, and some white students continue their harassment, Lu is no longer in the “middle.” She knows where she belongs.
Sam’s at his new desk on the black side of the classroom, looking perfectly hunky dory. And now Belinda’s on the edge of her seat. She jerks her head at me in a come-here motion. She’s telling me: leave the middle row and join us. But I’m scared.
For a few seconds, I lock eyes with Belinda, still scared. Hardly able to breathe, I scoop up my book bag, still scared. I hurry over to the only empty desk on that side of the classroom and claim it for my own. When Belinda reaches over to squeeze my hand, I feel much better.
A series of white-initiated lunchroom fights breaks out, Spider is arrested and suspended when he stops a fight, and pressure from the newly-activated students gets him released.
And Lu takes her own stand: With her heart pounding and the music of Sly and the Family Stone in her head—and despite Miss Garrett’s warning that her grade will be dropped and she might lose her place on the honor roll—Lu, realizing that she shouldn’t have personally benefited from attending a hate rally, takes back her extra-credit report.
Lu’s 1960s-‘70s southern voice is authentically rich (“might as well poke an ant pile with a stick,” “jittery as a cat near water”), and her slang is contextualized (“you can bet your sweet bippy,” “higgledy-piggledy”). Although she’s not totally fluent in Spanish, Lu translates for a neighbor, and in a conversation where “Spanish and English get all chopped up and mixed together,” she translates for Belinda. Middle-grade readers will see these conversations in English and know that Lu is translating. And that Lu’s parents’ Spanish, generally honorifics, is not italicized is important and refreshing.
In a helpful Author’s Note, Weaver fills in the historical events that shaped Alabama at this time, describes the racist origins of the Southern tradition known as the “cakewalk,” and tells readers which parts of this semi-autobiographical story are true and which are fictional.
During this momentous school year, as history is being made in the Deep South and all over the world, young Luisa Olivera is growing from a naïve child desperately seeking to “fit in,” into a young woman who knows where she stands. Without polemic or hyperbole, Weaver exposes the ugliness and injustices of Wallace-era racism, the tensions of young people’s finding their road, and the solidarity that comes from conscience, friendship and realizing where you stand.
In these hard times, when the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” means “Make America White Again,” when white supremacists parade openly and “our” government demonizes immigrants and Muslims, when police shoot and kill Black children and adults with impunity—and when young people dare to place themselves in the forefront of national change—My Year in the Middle is a brilliant, fast-moving story that will resonate with middle-grade readers and could not have been published at a better time. Thank you, Lila and Candlewick.