Aimee Rogers's Reviews > Ruby Lee and Me

Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock
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Jan 10, 2016

it was ok
bookshelves: kr-tr, historical-fiction, intermediate


It is the summer before 6th grade when Sarah Beth Willis’ life changes completely. She is supposed to be watching her little sister, Robin, but has her nose buried in a book instead when Robin is hit by a car. Robin is rushed to the hospital where it is determined that her injuries are life threatening. Sarah Beth stays with her beloved grandparents while her parents stay with Robin in the hospital. Robin eventually leaves the hospital in a full body cast, but it will take a long time for her to return to her active self.

As a result of Robin’s accident and the hospital bills Sarah Beth’s family is forced to sell their house in town and to move into a much smaller house on Grandpa and Granny’s farm. Sarah Beth adores her grandparents, so this isn’t a problem, but it means that she will be attending a new school in the fall. There is lots of talk about Sarah Beth’s new school and one of the new teachers. The summer portrayed in RUBY LEE & ME is the summer of 1969 and Sarah Beth is living in a segregated town in North Carolina. Sarah Beth has heard talk of Freedom Riders and school integration, but she is not sure exactly what all of it means. However, these issues are brought home to Sarah Beth when she realizes that her new school will be integrating in the fall and that her new teacher, Mrs. Smyre, will be the first African American teacher in the town.

Sarah Beth isn’t too concerned with having an African American teacher as her best friend, Ruby Lee, is African American. However, Sarah Beth has a lot to learn about civil rights, integration and white privilege. She must learn to navigate all of these issues as her and Ruby Lee attend the same school for the first time; can they be friends in school like they are out of school? Miss Irene, Ruby Lee’s grandmother, and Sarah Beth’s granny are friends on the farm, but not in town and Sarah Beth wonders if the same thing will happen to her and Ruby Lee. Sarah Beth says of her granny and Miss Irene, “Granny and Miss Irene gossiped like best friends here on the farm, but only nodded and smiled when they saw each other in town. I had asked Granny about it once and she said, ‘The creek don’t care what color feet wade in it, but the town pool surely does. It’s easier to be friends away from wagging tongues’” (p. 22)

I think that RUBY LEE & ME is a good work of historical fiction, it is an enjoyable story and I cared about the characters, but there are two inherent problems with the book. First of all, the book doesn’t do what it purports to do or what the publisher/marketers advertised it as doing. On the flap of my advanced reading copy it states that, “In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.” As noted above this “very special teacher” is Mrs. Smyre, the first African American teacher in the local integrated school. This is an interesting and important storyline and I was excited to read the book because of it. However, Mrs. Smyre doesn’t appear until Chapter Eighteen and that is the only chapter that she appears in; she is referred to in other parts of the book, but doesn’t appear elsewhere. If RUBY LEE & ME is going to be marketed as a book about a special teacher and her impact then that special teacher needs to be a more prominent part of the book. I don’t know if this was a failing on the part of the author, Shannon Hitchcock, or if this is a result of poor marketing on Scholastic’s part.

The second problem with RUBY LEE & ME, as I see it, is that it glosses over the issues of racism, segregation, the civil rights movement and white privilege. Yes, I know that this is a middle grade novel and that a more thorough treatment of these issues may be beyond this book and its intended audience. However, with that being said, if the issues are going to be brought up and serve as a background to the rest of the story, then I believe that they deserve and demand more depth. For example in the middle of the book Ruby Lee and Sarah Beth get into an argument. “All the guilt and fear spewed out of me like a flash flood. ‘I hate you, Ruby Lee Kimmer. You’re a ----‘ and then I called her the most vile name I could think of. A name I knew Ruby hated. A word intended to make her people feel like dirt” (p. 88 – 89). By neglecting to include the actual word Sarah Beth used I believe it minimizes the issues that the name evokes. Sarah Beth and Ruby Lee spend most of the rest of the novel not speaking, but eventually make up; however, the issues brought up by the scene above are never addressed fully by either character, the narrator or the author.

So my review of RUBY LEE & ME is mixed. I think that it is a good and very readable middle grade historical fiction novel. Many of the storylines are compelling and the characters are relatable and likeable. However, I am disappointed that the special teacher, who is advertised as being a large part of the story, appears so briefly in the novel. I also wish that the social issues that serve as the backdrop of the story were presented in a more complete manner.
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Reading Progress

January 10, 2016 – Started Reading
January 10, 2016 – Shelved
February 7, 2016 – Shelved as: kr-tr
February 7, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
February 7, 2016 – Shelved as: intermediate
February 7, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Stacie I agree with you. I felt the flap inside the front cover did not summarize the story that I read. The teacher was barely mentioned & frankly I thought the title was not fitting as well. Ruby was missing through most of the story due to the fall out between her & Sarah. I did also enjoy the story.

message 2: by Rebbie (new)

Rebbie From what I understand, the n-word can only be implied, not written outright, or the book would be banned. But I definitely see what you're saying. Hopefully there will be more books that handle this subject. Kids need to read these types of books for sure. Great review!

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