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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Woodson, Jacqueline The Other Side;illus. by E. B. Lewis. Putnam, 2001. 32p
ISBN 0-399-23116-1   $16.99    6-9 yrs

Books about race and race relations, whether well-written or not, are books that carry tremendous historical and political baggage, and they are nearly guaranteed to provoke strong emotions of one kind or another. The topic of racism is difficult to serve up in palatable portions for younger listeners and readers, who have limited ability to provide their own context. Informed by the adult perspective of the writer, these books tend toward over-explanation in an effort to provide that context; they are often message-driven, with neat conclusions and the assumption of simpler, happier futures. Oversimplification of complex issues is a charge often leveled at picture books dealing with weighty subjects; it is a charge that cannot be leveled at Jacqueline Woodson's latest book.

The title of Woodson's evocation of a not-so-long ago summer refers to a seemingly impassable division: "That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger. We lived in a yellow house on one side of it. White people lived on the other." Clover, an African-American girl about eight or nine years old, relates the story of the "summer there was a girl who wore a pink sweater," a white girl, on the other side of the fence. After weeks of watching one another, the two girls finally speak, and, with the pragmatism of children, find a way around their mothers' injunction that they stay on their own side: "'A fence like this is made for sitting on,' Annie said. She looked at me sideways. 'My mama says I shouldn't go on the other side,' I said. 'My mama says the same thing. But she never said nothing about sitting on it.' 'Neither did mine,' I said. That summer me and Annie sat together on that fence." Woodson is a writer of exceptional integrity, and this short story contains the same emotional and moral complexity found in the author's longer work (Miracle's Boys, BCCB 5/00; If You Come Softly, BCCB 10/98) distilled into a minimalist yet poignant readaloud. Clover tells the story that she knows, the story of that particular summer and that particular fence, from her particular point of view. It is this specificity that makes the tale so effective and that sets the unstated context into bold relief.

Lewis' watercolors provide a telling backdrop to the action; the rural setting is suggested more than delineated, and the gentle softness of the summer light helps model both landscape and characters. Perspective and the placement of characters in the compositions physically establishes the distance between the two girls, each on her own side of the fence. The body language of the children is also telling. In one spread, Clover's friends jump rope near the fence where Annie watches. Annie, asking to play, leans hopefully over the rails; Sandra, refusing Annie's request, stands adamant with hand on hip. Eventually, the girls all jump rope together; the spread depicting the six of them balanced on the top rail of the fence visually foreshadows the final text: "When we were too tired to jump anymore, we sat up on the fence, all of us in a long line. 'Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down,' Annie said. And I nodded. 'Yeah,' I said. 'Someday.'"

This is an emotionally intricate tale presented simply and intimately, and the open-ended conclusion unselfconsciously encourages discussion, examination, and inquiry. Unlike authors of other picture books dealing with racism and prejudice, Woodson doesn't overexplain or stack the emotional deck. She doesn't knock the fence down for the reader/listener; the town does not suddenly have a collective change of heart. She just lets Clover tell the story, and then she leaves it up to readers and listeners to resolve any questions that remain.

--Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
February's Bulletin cover illustration by E. B. Lewis
from The Other Side,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2001.