“Night on Fire” by Ronald Kidd is a middle grade historical fiction novel about the Civil Rights Era. It’s told from an unusual perspective, that of a thirteen-year-old white girl living in Anniston, Alabama. Her family is not wealthy. In fact, her father was demoted (a fact this is alluded to) and her mother had to go to work. There is a baby brother and a black nanny/maid, Lavender.
Billie is satisfied with the way things are in her town. There is the “tradition” that blacks don’t shop at the same stores as whites, and they don’t live on the same side of town. Her friend and neighbor Grant McCall comes from the North. His father is a journalist, and Grant wants to be a photographer.
Billie’s father treats Lavender, whom Billie considers a second mother, with contempt, and he is openly disrespectful to her. Billie also is present during the state spelling bee, where the students from the black high school, Cobb, challenge the winner to face their winner in a contest. They are booed down, and the black protesters begin to chant and spell words like liberty and prejudice. Mr. McCall steps up and quells the emotions by proposing that next year, all students be allowed to participate. The judge says “We’ll consider it.”
It’s pointed out in the book that although the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education was decided years before, the schools in Alabama — at least in the town of Anniston — were not segregated. More information about the Freedom Riders can be found here.
When Billie meets Jermaine, Lavender’s daughter, someone who is determined to protest unfair treatment, Billie’s eyes are opened. She learns about the Freedom Riders. She sees the Freedom Riders in action when they are brutally attacked and the bus is set on fire. Billie is disappointed to see her father in the crowd, watching but not doing anything. Janie, a fellow student and the winner of the spelling bee, walks among the injured giving out water.
Billie and Jarmaine talk about how they both watched and did nothing. One of the best parts of the book is their conversation about that event. They talk about the phrase, “All you need for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.” Jarmaine says, “There are two kinds of people in the world — the watchers and the riders. You and me? We’re watchers.” And Billie responds, “I want to be a rider.” And Jermaine agrees with her. Students today learn about being “bystanders” and “upstanders.” They will have no problem seeing the comparison between those terms. The riders are the upstanders — doing what it takes to make things right.
It’s when Billie decides to go to Montgomery to see the Freedom Riders and hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak that their friendship is cemented. The two of them integrate the Birmingham bus station, they take the bus (and sit together) to Montgomery, and they are at the First Baptist Church when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the service.
There is much more, but the characters are real — flaws and all. The first person narrative allows readers to know when Billie is wrong about integration (at the start of the book) and the reader applauds her growth and rebellious ideas (compared to her family) and actions.
Perfect for fifth graders studying that period. This book would be a great choice for those reading “Stella by Starlight,” “brown girl dreaming,” “The Sound of Life and Everything,” “Running Out of Night,” and any books by Mildred Taylor like “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Albert Whitman and Company for review purposes.
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