About the Book
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor is a Newberry Medal award-winning book and a classic young adult novel. It tells the story of the trials and victories of 9-year-old Cassie Logan and her family as they work hard to thrive in 1930s Mississippi. Taylor's sweet and powerful story will deepen your understanding of where we come from, how far we've come, and what we're all hoping to achieve.
Buy the Book
- An interview with Mildred D. Taylor by the American Library Association
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - 1978 TV Movie
- Still Separate, Still Unequal: Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality
- A Brief History of Black Land Ownership in the U.S.
- How parents and educators can use children’s books as a ‘magnifying glass’ for injustice
Here is a reflection on reading from CS Lewis:
"No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond."
Welcome to the first episode of the WE SHOULD ALL BE BOOKWORMS podcast. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. In this episode I will introduce you to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.
This is an award-winning, classic young adult novel about the trials and victories of a little black girl and her family set in 1930s Mississippi. Given our country’s latest reckoning with race, and given that Cassie, the main character of this book, is one of my all-time favorite heroes, I felt this was the perfect inaugural book for this podcast.
No matter where you stand in our national conversation, Taylor's sweet and powerful story will deepen your understanding of where we come from, how far we've come, and what we're all hoping to achieve.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
I first read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when I was about 11 or 12 years old. It’s the book that introduced me to racism, and it deals with this tricky topic so…. humanely. It’s clear and sharp and true - but also compassionate.
I was born in the ‘80s and grew up as a military kid traveling all over. So I was always in pretty multicultural classrooms. And my parents never made a big deal out of us being black. It just was, and it didn’t matter to them. It didn’t matter to my diverse group of friends. So it didn’t matter to me. And then I read this book and I learned about a time when it did matter - when the color of my skin determined the doors that were open. And the only reason that my race factored so little in my day-to-day life today was the resilience and the resistance of many generations before me.
I also chose Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as the inaugural book for this podcast because it’s perfect for the current time. Over the last year, we’ve been dealing with a national reckoning on race and wrestling with questions like:
- how do we discuss race with each other? With our children?
- How do we discuss the terror against black people in the past and the legacy of that terror today?
- Where does responsibility lie? Are reparations due?
- How do we discuss our nation’s terrible past without casting blame on people who had nothing to do with it, but who still benefit from it?
And I think getting lost in Mildred Taylor’s beautiful story is a great place to start, because of how well the questions it explores parallel the questions we are still struggling with today.
It’s an easy read — a children’s book geared to ages 10 and up. Here’s a tip: If you’re trying to get back into reading, popular children’s books are a great place to start because they are easy to read quickly. You can zip right through them. They’re also often positive and inspiring and they leave you feeling hopeful.
And that’s certainly true for this story. It is at times sad and sobering, and it touches on all of these big life questions. But it does it in a way that a 10-year-old can understand, and it does it in a way that leaves room for hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author of Roll of thunder, Hear my Cry is Mildred D. Taylor.
Taylor comes from a family of strong storytellers and whenever she went “down south” to visit family, she would hear stories about their lives.
“All of my books are based on something that happened to a family member or a story told by a family member,” Taylor says. “or they are based on something that happened to me when I was growing up.”
She says writing Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry was difficult, particularly because of how heavy the events in the last few chapters are. But she knew there was something important about this story. She says “It will always be the most special book I have written.”
Others agree. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the 1977 Newberry Medal, an annual award given to the “author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I remember that’s why I read the book as a child. I was attracted to the shiny round sticker on the cover. I knew instinctively that meant a book was special.
The story is told from the point of view of 9-year-old Cassie Logan. And boy does she have a point of view. She is fiery, hot-tempered, outgoing, confident little black girl - which is a dangerous thing to be in America in the 1930’s.
But Cassie is also privileged because she has a strong family unit. Her family owns 400 acres of land, which is extremely rare for a black family of that time. Her mother is educated and a teacher at her school. Her father is a farmer, but must work away from home at the railroad to keep income coming in to meet the tax expense of the land. Her strong grandmother also lives with them and she has a good relationship with her three brothers. All of this security and love combine to shelter Cassie from the worst of her environment.
However, this story follows the pivotal year in Cassie’s life where the safety of her family unit can no longer shield her from what it means to be black in America. The veil of innocence she’s been living under for so long starts to slip away, and she gets dark glimpses of the nightmare waiting to consume her if she doesn’t conform to society’s fierce rules. For instance,
- She visits a sick black man who barely survived being tarred and feathered because he called a white man a liar.
- She experiences being treated like a second-class person in a shop and is humiliated by a white girl and her father in public.
- She watches how her parents’ simple boycott of a store puts not just their livelihood, but their very lives at risk.
- And she observes how a troublemaking but playful young boy she grew up with is first seduced by the thrill of breaking rules and then devoured by the consequences.
So Cassie has a pretty tough year. But what’s great about this book is that while Cassie is learning how hard the world is for black people - she’s also getting amazing lessons in resistance.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENT
Now here’s a preview of the story through one of my favorite story moments:
It’s the first day of school and something important is happening. The teacher has just announced that each student will get their very own book! This has never happened before and everyone is excited.
Remember, this is depression-era 1930’s, and these are black students whose parents are mostly poor sharecroppers who can’t afford to buy books for themselves, let alone for for their children.
But Cassie’s excitement sinks into disappointment when she sees that the books are in lousy shape with banged up covers and worn out pages. But she accepts this as the way things are and lets it go.
But her little brother, who goes by the nickname Little Man, is heartbroken. At first, he almost refuses to accept the book from the teacher. But he does and goes back to his desk. When he opens the book he sees something that makes him so mad he throws the book on the floor and stomps all over it. Cassie opens her book to figure out what set him off. First, all she sees is that for the last 10 years it’s been in the possession of 10-or so other students, all of them white. But then she sees how they labeled her and her classmates. Her bewildered teacher is about to give little man the strap for his impertinence but Cassie intervenes, trying to explain why he’s mad. She shows her teacher the word written on the front page of the book. But she just dismisses this saying, “That’s what you are” and tells her to sit down.
The word was “Nigra.” And right next to the world Nigra was the condition of the book. And the condition was “very poor.”
Let’s put this in context. Little Man is about 6 years old and it’s his first day of school ever. He barely knows how to read, but he can read the words Nigra and Very Poor and he puts it all together.
Yes, he’s disappointed that’s he not getting a shiny new book, which is a common disappointment among children who like shiny new things. But, this disappointment is made all the more bitter by the fact that he’s not getting a shiny new book because he’s black.
And he’s furious over this.
And Cassie understands.
But strangely, her teacher- who, remember, is also black, does not.
After class, the teacher, Miss Crocker, marches over to Cassie’s mother’s classroom to complain about Little Man and Cassie’s behavior. And Cassie’s mother does not react the way she wants. Because Cassie’s mother understands.
And she takes the books and pastes a square piece of paper on top of the ownership record, so that her children don’t have to see those words - very poor and Nigra - every time they open the book.
Miss Crocker is shocked because, technically, Cassie’s mom is defacing county property and can get in trouble for this. Plus, she’s spoiling them because they need to learn that this is just the way the world is. And Cassie’s mom dismisses this, saying that doesn’t mean they need to accept it.
This whole scenario is one of many powerful examples of resistance in the book.
Little man resists by stomping on the book.
Cassie resists by defending Little Man.
Their mother resists by defacing county property and covering up the words “very poor” and “Nigra.” She knows that the book still has important information so stomping on it and refusing to use it is childish and pointless. But she understands the anger behind that action and breaks a rule to show that she does not accept the label of “very poor nigra” that these old books represent.
It’s a beautiful scene followed by many more, and it’s just — I’m just excited for you to read this book!
I love how despite bad things happen to characters in this book - this family and their community have a tough year. But no one’s spirit is broken. They refuse to accept second-class citizneship. They are resilient and noble and loving.
And relatable. You will definitely see yourself and your friends and your family in these characters.
Which is the best thing about reading stories like this. The more of the other we see in ourselves, the faster artificial walls like race and sex and class break down.
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry will take the average reader about 5 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in about 10 days, which is less than 2 weeks.