Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd (InfoSoup)
Billie longs to be able to leave her small Alabama town of Anniston and head for a bigger city where things happen. She hopes to be a writer one day too. As the battle for civil rights comes right to Anniston with the Freedom Riders, Billie discovers that there is a lot more racism in her city than she had ever known. She sees it in her own father at home with the way he interacts with their housekeeper, Lavender. She sees it in her school in the way that people react to the news of the Freedom Riders and she sees it in action when the bus the Riders are aboard is attacked. Billie begins to realize that she too has certain points of view that need to change. She wants to be a rider in life, not a watcher. So when she learns that the Freedom Riders are back on the road, she and Lavender’s daughter head to Birmingham aboard the bus together. Along the way, they are faced with overt racism for being together and Billie begins to understand that her actions can have impact to support larger change.
At first I was very disappointed to see a white character as the lead in the book. Then as the book continued, I realized the power of what was being shown on the page. Kidd demonstrates through a very approachable young protagonist that racism is everywhere, even in people who do not seem to be racist at all. Billie is a great example of societal racism and someone who longs for change but can’t see their own role in the process and the subtle ways that race in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement is so pervasive. In Billie, Kidd manages to show a modern racism that is just as toxic as the more overt kind. It is carefully done, never overplayed, and offers a space for understanding and change to happen.
Kidd brings the Civil Rights Movement to life before the eyes of the reader, placing Billie in the midst of not only the Anniston Freedom Riders riot but also in Birmingham with the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. In both situations, there is real violence happening and real danger of people being murdered. Kidd pays homage to the bravery of the Freedom Riders and to their cause. He shows the price of silence and the challenge to speaking up against your home and community. It is a powerful piece of historical fiction.
Rich and layered, this is not a simple book. It will challenge readers to look at themselves and their biases and prejudice. It is a book that speaks to the modern Black Lives Matter movement and that encourages everyone to become part of the solution and not witness in silence. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Albert Whitman & Company.