There are a lot of rather disheartening things going on in the world right now. I want to give a shout-out to anyone who takes action to improve the life of another human being. If everyone operated with the goal to just help and not harm, imagine what the world would be like. It would probably require a bit more reflection than we usually give ourselves time to do. We would have to consider the consequences of our actions before engaging. We would need to view the world through the eyes of others. In The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones, Daven McQueen introduces us to characters who seem to naturally operate with this goal, others who are learning to do so, and a few who seem determined to work against it. The story of how they all come together is beautiful, painful, and ultimately hopeful.
When Ethan Harper punches a boy at his high school who calls him the n-word, his white father sends him to Alabama. In 1955. There are no other biracial or Black citizens of Ellison, Alabama in 1955. Having grown up in Washington state, Ethan imagines that a small town in Alabama will be boring, but he doesn’t know it will be dangerous. Boring is definitely not the word that Juniper Jones would use to describe Ellison and she is determined to prove to Ethan that he can have a great summer in Alabama. An invincible summer, in fact.
Juniper is unlike anyone that Ethan has ever met and she certainly has different views about race than anyone else in Ellison, including Ethan’s aunt and uncle. She sees in Ethan the qualities of a best friend: adventurous, curious, and accepting. Nothing else matters to Juniper. While Juniper shows Ethan the best things about living in Ellison, they both are learning about its horrors. Juniper and Ethan discover together that, to many people in Alabama, the color of Ethan’s skin makes him not just less important, but less human. While racism was certainly present in Washington, it is a way of life in Alabama. Any nudge of the color line can be deadly.
Ethan and Juniper are a perfect pair in every way and almost nothing can keep them apart. This is a story of an extraordinary friendship that deserves to last forever. Readers will fall in love with these characters, cheering them on whenever racist individuals stand in their way. Even so, as should be painfully obvious to readers today, racism is not a force that is easily overcome. It will take an extraordinary shift in the way that millions of us view each other to ever be eradicated.
That is why books like this one are so important to share with our students and their families. They cause us to pause and reflect on the consequences of our actions and our inaction. They inspire us to make an effort to view the world in a different way. They might just make hope a bit more invincible.
Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards:
Diversity 9: I know I am connected to other people and can relate to them even when we are different or when we disagree.
Diversity 10: I can explain how the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, shapes their group identity and culture.
Justice 13: I am aware that biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws and institutions limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups.