Freedom Summer

Multicultural Picture Book

The read aloud is planned for fifth graders. Freedom Summer, written by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, is a picture book about two best friends, Joe, who is white, and John Henry, who is African American. These boys are trying to overcome segregation in Alabama in 1964, although they figure out a new law forbidding segregation is not enough to change people's hearts.
Deborah Wiles was born a white child in Alabama, and spent summers visiting family in Mississippi. Currently, Deborah lives in Maryland and teaches writing and oral history workshops--sharing with children how history really is biography, and how everyone's story is important. This is her first book. In 2002, she won the Ezra Jack Keats / New York Public Library award and best new picture book writer of the year. Jerome Lagarrigue grew up in Paris, France in a family of artists. He graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and currently teaches drawing and painting at Parsons School of Design in New York. His illustrations in the book won the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe new talent award. In 2002, he also won the best new illustrator award. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, many southern businesses shut their doors in protest rather than lawfully giving blacks the same rights and freedoms as whites. Also in the summer of 1964, civil rights workers in Mississippi organized "Freedom Summer," a movement to register black Americans to vote. Although African Americans were supposed to be treated equally, they had to use the back door, were waited on only after every white had been helped, and were treated poorly. This story is fiction, but based on true events the author experienced.
Freedom Summer


One of the key strengths of this book is that it includes characters between two cultural groups who interact substantively and authentically. John Henry, who is African American, is best friends with the narrator Joe, who is white. They do everything together, like going swimming in the creek, helping with chores, shoot marbles, and eat ice pops. Every day they are together, and do not care about the color of their skin. At the end of the book, Joe wishes he could see through John Henry's eyes in order to see his struggles. Freedom Summer also includes members of a minority group for a purpose. It shows what life was like for an African American, regardless of age, in the South in 1964. It starts right off by saying John Henry's mother is a slave, and works for Joe's family. It also shows all of the racism that happened throughout the Civil Rights Act. The swimming pool being filled with tar at the end of the story is a perfect example of how whites felt about having the same rights as an African American, and how a minority group is used throughout the story to portray history. Lastly, Freedom Summer has an appealing format and is of endearing quality. It has a picture to accompany every page and portrays what is happening throughout the story. The quality is great because it helps teach children about history since the incidents in the story are based on real life events.
President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs Civil Rights Act, Gives Pen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Vocabulary Words

  • To remove the hard, outer layer of a seed


  • To hunch, hide, or take shelter

Procedures For Implementing the Read Aloud & Vocabulary Presentation

  1. Have the students move to the carpet. Show the students the cover of Freedom Summer and ask, "By looking at the cover, what do you think this book is going to be about?"
  2. Read the first two pages. Then, hold up the sign that says "Shell" and ask the students, "What does this word mean?" After the students give their answers, say "To shell butter beans means to remove the hard, outer layer of the bean so the inside seed can be eaten."
  3. Continue reading the book. Stop after page 10 and ask, "Why is John Henry not allowed to swim in the town pool? [Students should say, "Because he is African American and they aren't allowed to swim in the public swimming pool." Tell them, "This was right before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964."
  4. Read until page 21. Ask the students, "Why do you think the boys stopped? What do you think they saw?"
  5. Read the book until page 24. After finishing the page, ask "Why was the swimming pool filled with tar?" [Students should say, "Because white people were angry African Americans could swim in the public swimming pool."] Tell them, correct, and then hold up the sign that says "Hunker." Ask "What does it mean to hunker?" [Students should say the boys were hiding in the tall weeds so they wouldn't be seen.] If not, tell them it means to squat and that the boys were trying to stay out of sight.
  6. Finish reading the book, then ask "What do you think happened to the two boys after they walked through the front door of Mr. Mason's store? Raise your hand if you have an idea."
  7. Ask the students, "What do you think the rest of the summer was like for John Henry since the Civil Rights Act was passed? Please raise your hand."
  8. Have students return to their seats. Pass out a piece of white paper. Tell them, "Each one of you is going to create a word poster. Choose one of the vocabulary words, either shell or hunker, and write it at the top of your paper. Then, draw a picture of the boys shelling butter beans OR hunkering behind tall bushes watching the pool be filled with tar. Here is an example of a word poster." Pass around the example to the students so they can see the finished product.


1) This particular book was selected for a few different reasons. First, it showed the value of friendship, regardless of skin color. Although my class is mainly composed of African Americans, there are four Caucasian students. Secondly, it talked about racism back in the 1960s, before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and there shortly after. My students are about to start a new unit about the Underground Railroad and the Union. They had some background knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, and after reading the book, we talked about what life was like for the two boys living in Alabama during this time period. Their background knowledge helped them relate to the story.
2) The biggest strength of this read aloud teaching presentation was the material. The students absolutely loved it, which lead to a great presentation. They were really involved in the material and really liked making the word poster at the end of the book presentation. Most of the students raised their hand after I asked a question and they all had something different to say. It was fun to hear how they all thought about something different and molded their predictions and ideas together. I was also really happy with the two vocabulary words I chose. The students did not know either, and it was really cool to tell them the definition and see their brains make the connection between the word and the context of the story.
3) At times, the students would start talking over each other, so it got to be loud at one point. Next time, I would really emphasize "raise your hand if you have an answer", to ensure that the students stay involved and in control.
4) Implementing multicultural children's literature that is culturally and linguistically diverse relative to my elementary has helped me understand my students better. It opened up their minds and let me peak into their thinking process. I was able to hear what they would do in this type of situation, and they also talked about how life is so much more different (and better) now than it was back in 1964.