Mississippi Learning

Alice Ann Moxley, the spunky 11-year-old at the center of Mary Ann Rodman's excellent Yankee Girl (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17; ages 10-up) is very much unlike the protagonists usually found in young-adult novels. She is neither steadfastly heroic nor particularly brave. And while the place she inhabits has no wise wizards or flying broomsticks, it is nevertheless otherworldly and frightening. During the summer of 1964, Alice moves with her parents from Chicago to Jackson, Miss. Her fearless father is an FBI agent -- a downright troublemaker to his new Southern neighbors -- who gets threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan and spouts liberal pieties that would have made Thurgood Marshall proud.

Alice's mother is a bit more anxious. To avoid unsettling reports from the civil-rights front, she will check on dinner instead of watching the evening news. And she has an abundance of bad news to avoid -- dead civil rights workers, church bombings and peaceful protests ending with violent arrests. Rodman, whose father was an FBI agent who moved with his family down South, begins each chapter with a headline from the fictional Jackson Daily Journal. As Alice begins the sixth grade, one headline screams the loudest: City Schools to Integrate.

For Alice, even more important than this seismic shift is her attempt to progress from wannabe cheerleader to actual cheerleader. Yet she finds that reaching the cheerleader ranks -- and doing the right thing at the same time -- is about as difficult as getting her bangs to stay in place with Dippity-Do. This Yankee has much to learn. Jeb Mateer, Alice's next-door neighbor, also 11, is happy to school her in Southern ways. Early on, Jeb balks when Alice introduces herself to Inez Green, the Mateer family maid: "I know you don't know no better, so I'll tell you. First off, you don't introduce yourself to nigras."

Puzzled, Alice asks why. Jeb's only response is: "I don't know. It's just the rules, okay?" The rules also dictate that Inez bring her own silverware, plate and cup from home. To Alice, this seems more weird than cruel.

But after Valerie Taylor arrives, the cruelties of segregation become clear. Valerie is a brave black girl sent by her family to integrate Alice's school.

A classmate trips Valerie. She is forced to take her lunch with the teachers. In the bathroom, the cheerleaders bully her. Students toss her sweater in the garbage can and knock her books to the ground. All this happens on her first day.

The largely friendless Alice tries to make a connection with Valerie, but it does not happen quickly enough for her. Valerie, in spite of everything, seems to do just fine on her own. In her quiet way, she demonstrates that being black is no disgrace; it's just awfully inconvenient. As the cheerleaders make Valerie's school days more and more miserable, Alice becomes a passive conspirator in their plan to drive the black girl out of school. "Thinking about what other people should do was one thing. Doing it yourself was another," Alice realizes. In the end, however, she does the honorable thing and even makes the leap from coward to something of a crusader. Rodman's closing pages, in which Alice and a few white classmates welcome a new black student, suggest an optimistic -- if slightly naive -- view of school integration.

The Last Days of Jim Crow?

For a more nuanced take, turn to Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone: The Brown v. Board of Education Decision, a compelling but uneven collection edited by Joyce Carol Thomas and illustrated by Curtis James (Jump at the Sun, $15.99; ages 10-up). During the summer of 1950, a black man named Oliver Brown escorted his daughter Linda to an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kan. When they were turned away, Linda's father became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that resulted in the Supreme Court's overturning legal segregation in 1954. The reflections, stories and poems in this volume were all written by authors who were children at the time of that landmark decision.

The best contributions include Jerry Spinelli's "Wonamona," Thomas's "Stormy Weather" and Leona Nicholas Welch's "My Dear Colored People." The remaining offerings seem forced and often self-indulgent. While Ishmael Reed's "Color Blind" provides a nice summary of cases related to Brown, he seems less interested in relating his personal experiences than in lamenting the black institutions that crumbled after desegregation. "One of the results of integration is our current hip-hop generation," he writes. It is an odd and dismissive claim that seems to suggest that Reed deals with members of that generation at arm's length. Curtis James's pastels, while always warm, are most evocative when paired with the more personal stories.

Just Picture It

Toni Morrison sifted through hundreds of sepia-tone archival photographs before selecting the images featured in Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Houghton Mifflin, $18; all ages). The pictures -- of blacks and whites of all ages -- date from the twilight of Jim Crow and the tense years following the Brown decision. Morrison uses fictional dialogue to imagine the thoughts and emotions of the subjects in the photos, often with poignant results. The images are familiar, but the feelings Morrison taps into are fresh.

One somber scene shows a young black girl, crisply garbed in a pretty plaid dress, who sits alone at a lunch table amid a sea of white students. Morrison writes: "I eat alone. No one looks at me. I can't (won't) look at them." There are pictures of black children who look scared, yet determined. And whites, who are screaming and frowning. But by the final page, there is a picture of a black girl and a white girl, hand in hand and smiling.

"Anything can happen," Morrison writes. "Anything at all. See?"

It will take longer than a generation and a half to achieve the racial harmony that Morrison hints at. And we'll continue to need courageous everyday heroes -- like Oliver and Linda Brown -- all along the way. *

Nia Malika-Henderson is a freelance writer who lives in Harlem.