It’s been awhile since I have had a candidate for the #librarianfightclub hashtag on Instagram. I like to find the positive things in books, but this one was hard. I also believe there is much to be learned from this that can be applied to other books in children’s literature, so I have decided to break it down.
I chose this book because the summary talked about a friendship between an African American girl, named Ruby, and a white girl, named Sarah during the integration of their school, having an African American teacher, and the battles they faced. After completing it, the summary should have been: a girl dealing with the tragic accident of her sister and some school integration. The title is, Ruby Lee and Me, but I would only consider Ruby a foil character.
To further my point, here are some examples:
- The book is centered around whiteness. Despite the summary supposed to be about integration, the first half (100 pages) of the book is about Sarah’s feelings towards her sister’s accident. When it finally brings up race it is done through Sarah’s perspective. Integration and having an African American teacher is littered throughout the last half of the book, but is not the main focus. In addition, Sarah doesn’t understand why Ruby and her are advised to not hang out at school and she makes half-hearted attempts to rectify this. The book closes with Sarah “bravely” driving her grandmother to the hospital after she hurt her leg. The author chooses to portray Sarah as the heroine of the book as opposed to the courageous African American children that integrated white schools.
- Ruby and Sarah’s vernacular are notably different. Although African-American Vernacular English is a language without having proper context and knowing the difference between the languages Ruby appears less intelligent.
- The book upholds the adultification of Black children. When Sarah’s sister is hit by a car and might die Ruby is the first person Sarah wants to talk to because she is knowledgeable about death. They are both the same age, but Sarah is portrayed as innocent which plays into a harmful stereotype.
- Their grandmothers spend time together and are considered friends, but Ruby’s grandmother is docile and always defers to what Sarah’s says. This greatly downplays the strength of African American women and furthers the trope of their passivity.
- Finally, the reason that irked me the most: When Ruby and Sarah get into an argument, Sarah calls her the n-word. Although it is not actually written it is insinuated. (Which I am still evaluating the appropriateness of this for a children’s book.) Sarah attempts an apology through a letter rather than facing Ruby directly. When she finally apologizes in person the whole scene is overshadowed by a boy wanting to ask Sarah to a dance. Ruby happily accepts the apology downplaying the graveness of it all. This is one of the many instances the book takes a serious topic and makes it more comfortable for the reader.
Although fictional, the book is based on some of the author’s own experiences. Despite this, I feel it plays into many harmful stereotypes and tries to add school integration and having an African American teacher in while keeping it as an afterthought. I believe the book would be substantially better, and even enjoyable, if it didn’t attempt to tackle the topic of race at all.