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Book Review: Going North

July 1st, 2010 (03:11 pm)

For my children's literature class, we write evaluations of the books we read.  I thought I'd share mine here.  These will illustrate some teacherly/librarian concerns which don't come out as much in my reviews of YA lit.

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Harrington, J. N. (2004). Going north. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books.

Going North is the semi-autobiographical story of an African American family’s move from Alabama to Nebraska in the early 1960s. The story is told from the perspective of Jessie, a young girl who is reluctant to leave the home she loves. She is both anxious and optimistic about the prospect of a new life in the North.

This book is appropriate for readers in grades 3 – 5, who are beginning to move away from egocentrism and beginning to be able to see things from others’ perspectives. It is set in the segregated South of the 1960s. This is conveyed both in text, with statements like, “Can’t stop just anywhere./Only the Negro stations,/only the Negro stores,” and with images of the African American family staying in their car at a gas station while a white family’s car is serviced by a white attendant. Jessie, the narrator, is the only character who is very well developed. Because she is telling the story, we get a sense of her own fears and hopes. Despite its focus on racial tensions, the book manages to avoid stereotypical portrayals. 

The rich language conveys powerful images such as “I wish my toes were roots./I’d grow into a pin oak and never go away.” The language uses literal descriptions, onomatopoeia, and metaphor. Phrases such as “good luck,” with the first word in the phrase in larger print than the second, imitate the sounds of tires on a road. The themes of memory and movement are conveyed through the misty quality of the oil painting illustrations and the multiple perspectives of the yellow station wagon as it heads north. Jessie’s concerns, such as whether she will like her new home and if she will have much in common with the children there, are common to many children as they move to a new city.

The book is large and horizontal, so readers who are still struggling with fine motor skills can handle it quite readily. Endpapers with maps of the region the characters travel add to the sense of place in the story. The jacket design shows the family in its yellow station wagon. The title text and author attribution are in fonts which follow a curving line, adding to the book’s sense of movement. Inside, the text is printed with plenty of space around it so that the eye is easily drawn to it. The paper is high quality, glossy, and the binding is sewn together sturdily. At the end of the book, Ms. Harrington provides an author’s note explaining how the story reflects her own experience as a child moving from Alabama to Nebraska.

Going North is an excellent book to introduce middle grade children to issues of segregation and to provide them with a connection to the lives of children from earlier time periods as they learn that some experiences, such as anxiety about going to a new place, are universal across time.