Rating: 5 stars
In “Ruth and the Green Book,” Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss take the readers back to the 1950s and the time of Jim Crow. This lovely picture book is for older readers; its first person narrative perfectly and painfully paints the hurt and confusion of a young black girl leaving her Chicago neighborhood for the first time.
Ruth and her parents are on their way in their brand new car to visit relatives in Alabama. Ruth brings along her stuffed teddy bear for company even through she acknowledges that she’s almost too old for him.
On the way, they encounter prejudice. Lots and lots of prejudice.
Ruth says, “It seemed like there were ‘White Only’ signs everywhere outside of our Chicago neighborhood.” A gas station that sold them gas but wouldn’t allow them to use the bathroom and a hotel that wouldn’t rent them a room angered her father, but they still managed to sing their way past restaurants with signs in the window refusing them service.
When they stayed in Tennessee with a friend, he told them about Jim Crow and that things were going to get worse. He also told Ruth to look out for Esso gas stations because the people there would treat them fairly. It was at an Esso station that Ruth’s family learned about the Green Book, a collection of places and businesses that welcomed blacks.
They bought a copy and it became Ruth’s responsibility to find places for them to eat and sleep. And that’s where the book becomes joyful in spite of the harsh realities of discrimination in the 1950s.
When they reached the first “tourist home,” the owner, Mrs. Melody, welcomed them. “It was like coming home,” Ruth explains. They met other travelers and made friends and found there was a support system.
As the plot unfolds, Ruth not only finds out about Jim Crow and the ugly truth about discrimination, she also grows up. She is in charge of the Green Book, and when she meets a little boy who is traveling with his mother and is away from home for the first time, she decides that he needs Brown Bear more than she does.
When they are almost at their destination, Ruth reflects, “It made me sad that some people were mean to Negroes. But it helped to know that good black people all over the country had pitched in to help each other. It felt like I was part of one big family!”
Other authors have written on this subject. “The Watsons Go To Birmingham — 1963” is a middle grade book about a family from Michigan visiting relatives in Birmingham during the church bombing. “The Gold Cadillac” by Mildred D. Taylor is an easier chapter book about a family with a new car and the troubles they encounter traveling south.
These three books would make a great study on discrimination in America for a fourth or fifth grade classroom. Each book tells a slightly different story — but the message is the same. Other books on the subject of discrimination featuring a more modern setting include “The Jacket” by Andrew Clements and “Crossing Jordan” by Adrian Fogelin — both superb books.
I would be remiss not to mention the beautiful illustrations by Floyd Cooper in “Ruth and the Green Book.” The colors are soft and the lines are blurred. It almost looks like pointillism (drawn with dots), and the results are stunning in a quiet kind of way. The manner in which Cooper evokes emotion in the faces of the people in the book is amazing. The readers can feel the joy watching the family sing in the car in spite of rejection. Ruth’s face mirrors her feelings of hurt, and the most priceless expression is that of the little boy receiving Ruth’s stuffed animal. It’s beautiful.
I strongly recommend this book for every classroom from third through sixth grade. It’s an easy read for the higher grades, but it effectively demonstrates the hurt and sadness of discrimination.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Carolrhoda Books (and the Lerner Publishing Group) for review purposes.