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.
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby (November 29, 2017)
By Julie Danielson
For the last four decades, Rhonda and James “Sparky” Rucker, who live in Maryville, have performed together for schools, libraries, and festivals all over the world, singing in the American folk tradition. Many of their educational programs touch upon African American history, particularly the civil-rights movement. Rhonda, who also writes children’s and young-adult books, brings this very topic to her newest picture book, Make a Change.
In fact, it is Sparky who lived the story in the book, which is set in Knoxville in 1960. When a group of Knoxvillians organize a pray-in to protest racial discrimination at Rich’s Department Store, a young boy named Marvin, based on Sparky himself, learns a meaningful lesson about change—and making assumptions about others. Illustrated by Brock Nicol, it’s a compelling story that captures the determination of peaceful protesters years before the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation in stores and other public places.
Rhonda Rucker answered questions via email about the true story that informed her newest children’s book.
Chapter 16: Can you talk about the real-life experience in Knoxville upon which this story is based?
Rucker: In February 1960, only days after the famous Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins, Knoxville College students began making noise about the segregated lunch counters in their own hometown. For months, students at the traditionally black college tried negotiations, but when those efforts failed, they realized more drastic measures were needed. In June 1960, they began sit-ins at Rich’s Department Store and many other Knoxville businesses. Demonstrators continued their protests until most counters finally opened to all customers in late July.
Rich’s Department Store, however, was resistant to change. In October, it briefly had a stand-up snack bar in the basement open to all customers. But its Laurel Room restaurant was still segregated, and students continued to demonstrate. By January 1961, Rich’s closed its Knoxville store, preferring to leave town rather than open its counters to all people. So the protesters essentially ran them out of town!
Sparky, my husband, was actually fourteen when these events happened, a few years older than Marvin, the boy in my picture book. I made the character younger to make the story more relevant for preschool readers.
Chapter 16: What was the biggest challenge in fitting this story into picture book format?
Rucker: Teaching tiny kids about the civil-rights movement can be difficult. Their sense of history and timing isn’t fully developed yet, so they can have trouble understanding how long ago (or how recently) events have happened. In our school programs, we often give a general overview of African American history, beginning with slavery in the early 1600s and ending with the civil-rights movement. More than once, very young children have asked Sparky if he used to be a slave. On the other hand, they are usually excited when they learn he was part of the civil-rights movement and knew people like Rosa Parks.
Another challenge is the inherent violence of the movement. In Birmingham, police dogs and fire hoses were turned on children as young as six, so those kids experienced the brutality firsthand. They boldly continued to demonstrate anyway, filling up Bull Connor’s makeshift jails. In my picture book, I only hinted at the possibility of violence. Unfortunately, it was a fact of life for many young people growing up in Jim Crow America, and it continues to be present for many children today.
Over the years, we’ve found that the concept of fairness helps preschoolers understand civil rights. No matter how young, they comprehend that it’s unfair to treat one person differently from another.
Chapter 16: Had you been familiar before this book with the artwork of Brock Nicol? What was it like for you to see his illustrations?
Rucker: No, I had not been familiar with Brock Nicol’s artwork before Pelican chose him to be the illustrator. However, once I saw his portfolio, I was completely on board. The powerful pictures he produced for this book blew me away! They vividly depict the conflict and struggle of people trying to make this a better world.
Chapter 16: Have you had a chance to share this story with children/students yet, particularly in Knoxville?
Rucker: Since its publication about six weeks ago, we haven’t visited any Knoxville-area schools. However, we’re in the planning stages with teachers and librarians, so those programs will happen. Sparky has told this story on stage to children and adults for decades, in Knoxville and across the country. I have always thought it would make a good children’s book, with its potent message. It’s even more relevant in today’s social climate.
Earlier this year, we performed at a children’s festival in Knoxville and a family concert in the next county, where we talked about Sparky’s involvement in the civil-rights movement. Audiences liked it when he said, “My mama took me to my first civil-rights demonstration. How cool is that?”
Chapter 16: How does your music inform your storytelling and writing?
Rucker: We use stories to introduce songs, so in our minds, they go together. Every song has a story. For example, I tell the story of how Harry Burn, a Tennessee state representative, cast the deciding vote that helped pass the Nineteenth Amendment. It all hinged on a letter from his mother, urging him to vote for women’s suffrage. Then we play the song, “Uncle Sam’s Daughter.”
Sparky tells the story of Sherman’s March to the Sea before we sing “Marching Through Georgia.”
Chapter 16: What’s next for you both? Any more books in the works?
Rucker: Sparky is working on a memoir of his life’s work as an activist, musician, and folklorist. The working title is The Care and Feeding of a Radical Folksinger. I am putting the finishing touches on A Mighty Stream, a young-adult novel set against the backdrop of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Those students became genuine heroes, transforming public opinion and energizing the civil-rights movement.
Being the change;
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.