Often when we teach about community activism, particularly in the elementary grades, we use examples of adult advocates. However, there are many examples of young people who have refused to be silent when confronted with injustice. Claudette Colvin is an example of a young activist during the Civil Rights Movement (there are several children’s books about Colvin including a personal favorite by Phillip Hoose). More recently we have seen extraordinary activism by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. These are just a few of the young people who are changing their communities and public discourse. In The Harlem Charade, by Natasha Tarpley, the age of the three protagonists is in no way proportional to their activism or their commitment to their community.
Jin, Alex, and Elvin are in the seventh grade when events in their community bring them together to respond to a mystery in their community involving an ill-intentioned city council member. These three are interesting characters themselves, particularly Alex who is trying to make a difference in her community without alienating her family or friends. Tarpley approaches issues of socioeconomic status and economic justice sensitively and without judgment. However, some of the most interesting characters are those that the three protagonists meet as they are attempting to solve the mystery. Art history, immigration, and family are all key topics in this book.
Reading The Harlem Charade could lead upper elementary and middle school students to do research about historical examples of community organizing. It might also inspire them to research their own communities and ways in which they can make a contribution. Children are some of the most passionate people who live in our communities and their ideas can –and do– lead to improvements around the world.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Action 19: I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.
Action 20: I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals.
RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
RL.3- Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).