Back in the days when Southern schools were first being integrated, we would see the news, showing angry white parents protesting the arrival of African-American children at the school their children attended. I used to wonder what effect that behavior had on white children as well as black. In Ann M. Martin’s new novel, Belle Teal, the fifth grade heroine lets us in on her own thoughts about that, as well as a good many other matters.
Belle Teal is one of those dirt-poor white people of the hills and hollows of southern Appalachia. She and her widowed mother and grandmother might well be looking for a scapegoat to blame for their own hard lot, but they aren’t. Belle Teal looks at life with a mixture of strength, common sense, fairness and sensitivity to the small things that make life in the hills beautiful. She’s tough, too, and not much threatens her. She knows her life is a lot better than that of her friend, Little Boss, or the snobbish new girl in school. And she’s right. It is.
Her voice is so convincing that we understand at all times where she’s coming from. Yet her voice is at the same time remarkably real and childlike, one that young readers will identify with. Her reasons and way of accepting Darryl, her new African-American classmate, are just the way such things do happen. The world is full of such everyday heroics, especially in the closed world of school, with its cliques and cruelties, and sometimes we forget to take notice of them. But the children who read this book will recognize much that’s familiar, the adored new teacher, the bullies, the freewheeling and sometimes terrifying world of the cafeteria and playground.
There’s a lot to learn from the way Belle Teal tells her story. That’s because there’s not a bit of adult preaching here. There’s not a single false note; the characters she tells us about are all real ones we believe in completely — and consequently care about. And the story she tells seems right and inevitable, as all good stories do, given the characters.
Belle Teal herself is the sort of kid we don’t have to worry about. Even though she has to wear shoes that are too small; her mother has had to dig into the small college fund she’s put aside for Belle Teal, in order to put herself through secretarial school; and Gran is rapidly getting forgetful with age, we know by the time we finish the book that this is one kid who’s going to be just fine.
Anne Rockwell, currently working on a novel for older children, has a new title coming this November, The Prince Who Ran Away: The Story of Guatama Buddha.