RHONDA LYNN RUCKER
MAKE A CHANGE
Picture book, ages 4-8, by Pelican Publishing Company
One kid learns a lesson on how dangerous making assumptions can be.
Marvin hates shopping, but Mama takes him to the new Rich’s department store for new pants. After Marvin tries on “everything in the store,” they finally go to the grill inside Rich’s for lunch. But sitting at the lunch counter is for “whites only,” and an older white man reminds Marvin of this when the boy tries out the shiny red swivel stools. But Mama says change is coming. When the family gets the opportunity to help usher in the change, the kids participate too. Since the city won’t allow black citizens to picket in front of Rich’s, they organize a pray-in instead. During this momentous event, Marvin realizes that blacks are not fighting for civil rights alone. This epiphany changes his life.
Based on an incident in the childhood of co-author James “Sparky” Rucker, this story takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since so many children’s stories about the movement take place in Alabama, Louisiana, or Mississippi, this one will help to broaden young readers’ understanding of its geographical reach. Nicol’s illustrations, with deep, rich colors, capture well the determination of the black citizens and the stress that comes with breaking through racial barriers.
A fine picture book to sit on the shelf alongside Ruby Bridges’ Through My Eyes (1999) and Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier’s Martin’s Big Words (2001).
"This lovely, short book is packed with meaning about a big subject. Rhonda Rucker has chosen her words carefully to convey important ideas in a way that children can easily understand. What could be more important at a time when we are still called upon to make a change for racial justice?"
~ Candie Carawan, Author, Activist, Singer, Musicologist
Author Rhonda Lynn Rucker’s latest picture book, Make a Change, is an excellent addition to that time in American and African American history when everyone – even children, had to stand up for their rights.
The book opens with a fidgety young African American boy who is shopping for school clothes with his mother. Then he catches a whiff of fresh golden-brown french fries being prepared at the lunch counter located in the basement of Rich’s Department Store. He can’t wait to sink his teeth into those delicious fries.
Unfortunately, Rich’s Department Store has a policy. The store is more than happy to accept money from African Americans to buy food at lunch time, but this happiness stops short of allowing them to sit and eat the food. The boy takes a seat anyway – not in defiance, but because he wants to sit down. That’s when an old grandpa-of-a-man rises off his stool and tells the boy and his mother that the lunch counter isn’t for people like them.
The young boy struggles to understand why African Americans are treated this way, and although he never fully processes the deeper reasons why, he is more than happy to do his part to help bring about a change. This “part” is to participate in a pray-in; to get down on his knees with other people who are protesting for the cause and pray to encourage other shoppers not to buy from the store.
This book is both sweet and somber. It explores the innocence of childhood and the cruelty of discrimination through the eyes of a young child who just wants to be treated like everyone else. The prose is honest and quite realistic, especially when the young boy describes his fear when he attends his very first sit in and he is approached by a young white man.
Artist Brock Nicol’s dark and rich illustrations expertly capture the sights, sounds and mindset of life in the 1960’s. Older readers will take one look at the store and street scenes and feel that they have been whisked backward in time to the Jim Crow era, and younger readers will experience first-hand the young boy’s confusion, uncertainty — and finally, hope, that things will get better.
Use this book as a supplemental text for African American or American history. It can also be used to jumpstart a discussion about tolerance, acceptance, citizenship, and human rights.
Make a Change by Rhonda Lynn Rucker with James "Sparky" Rucker
Rhonda Lynn Rucker is the author, with her husband, James "Sparky" Rucker, of the new children's picture book Make a Change. She also has written Swing Low, Sweet Harriet. The Ruckers are musicians who focus on effecting change through music. They live in Maryville, Tennessee.
Q: You note that although Make a Change is fiction, it's based on your husband's experiences as a child. How did the two of you decide to write a picture book about the events of 1960 in Knoxville and the civil rights movement?
A: Sparky and I are professional musicians and storytellers, and I have heard him tell the story of his first civil rights demonstration to audiences for many years. It carried such a powerful message, I thought everyone should hear it.
Knoxville is Sparky's hometown, of course, so we have close ties there. For a few years during his childhood, Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) was just a few blocks from his house. That's where he first heard Pete Seeger sing and where he later met people like Rosa Parks.
During marches and protests, Sparky began leading civil rights songs. Nowadays, we still include some of those in our performances. Music has always played a dominant role in movements for social change, and I tried to include that message in the book.
Q: What did you see as the right mixture of fiction and actual history?
A: I don't have a problem changing facts a little if there is a good reason. In the past, when Sparky told the story on stage, he had always assumed he was younger than he actually was.
When I looked up the protests of Rich's Department Store and other Knoxville businesses, we learned he had actually been 14 years old. However, that age wouldn't work well for a picture book, so I cut off a few years.
Otherwise, the first version of the book was very close to what actually happened. I gathered advice from my critique group as well as editors. As the story went through its many revisions, I tweaked a couple of things to make the plot stronger. As it is written, however, the book still carries the same basic message that Sparky took away from the experience.
Q: What do you think Brock Nicol's illustrations add to the story?
A: From the get-go, I was pleased with Brock Nicol's illustrations! His portrayal of the family and other characters make the book come alive. His realistic style and vivid colors are perfect and help a child envision the story.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the book?
A: The book addresses prejudice in an unexpected way, and I hope readers will understand the same powerful message that transformed my husband's life. It's a lesson that he has carried with him for over 50 years.
In addition, I would like children to see that they are never too young to make a difference in this world. If something is wrong, they can change it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently making finishing touches to a historical young adult novel based on the Birmingham's Children Crusade. Through that hard-fought campaign, teenagers did what adults had failed to do—transform public opinion and energize the civil rights movement.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Sparky and I often give performances in schools and libraries, where we can talk with the children about these issues, and get them to sing along on some of the old civil rights songs. For more information, visit our website at www.sparkyandrhonda.com.