Tag: racism

Module 11: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

November 14th, 2012 — 10:48am

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is an informative book by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In it, she has researched the Hitler Youth and details the lives of several teenagers growing up in Nazi Germany.


The book follows the timeline of the formation of the Hitler Youth, starting with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and ending with the aftermath of World War II and the unification of East and West Germany as a democratic state in 1990. Within the information, the author uses the examples of several members of the Hitler Youth. Membership in the Hitler Youth (called Hitlerjugend for boys and Bund Deutscher Madel for girls) was compulsory for the young people of Germany. Many of the youth believed that what they were doing was for the betterment of Germany because that was what they had been taught and told for years. However, some teenagers disagreed with what was required of them and what Hitler was doing and put up active resistance, printing and distributing pamphlets telling about Hitler’s lies and the true work of the Nazis and the concentration camps. The author used both diaries and personal interviews to share the experiences of the variety of young people in Germany in the 1940s.

The book focuses solely on the events of WWII as it pertains to the Hitler Youth. It paints a grisly portrait of youth taken advantage of by their government and their leader. Hitler said about his Youth, “I begin with the young…We older ones are used up…But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world.”


The Hitler Youth was a topic that I’d never explored; I’m pretty sure I only knew they existed from watching Swing Kids. But this book was fascinating. I saw parallels between then and now — I’ve often wondered how young people in our society can be closed-minded and prejudiced, and this book showed that children are especially susceptible to propaganda and the direction and influence of adults. I say adults and not their parents because in a few instances, the youth were so entranced with Hitler that they turned in their parents to the Nazis for saying “unpatriotic” or disparaging things about Hitler or the Nazi Party. It was very 1984, where adults feared their children.

The inclusion of the interviews and personal anecdotes made the book read more like a narration and less like a textbook. It was very well put together, though at times I lost track of the timeline of the events and what was happening elsewhere in the world. The chronology was loose in the book, but it didn’t keep the information from being effective. There was also a plethora of pictures — pretty much one or two on every page — which also distracted from the chronology of the story.


Hitler’s plans for the future of Germany relied significantly on its young people, and this excellent history shows how he attempted to carry out his mission with the establishment of the Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, in 1926. With a focus on the years between 1933 and the end of the war in 1945, Bartoletti explains the roles that millions of boys and girls unwittingly played in the horrors of the Third Reich. The book is structured around 12 young individuals and their experiences, which clearly demonstrate how they were victims of leaders who took advantage of their innocence and enthusiasm for evil means. Their stories evolve from patriotic devotion to Hitler and zeal to join, to doubt, confusion, and disillusion. (An epilogue adds a powerful what-became-of-them relevance.) The large period photographs are a primary component and they include Nazi propaganda showing happy and healthy teens as well as the reality of concentration camps and young people with large guns. The final chapter superbly summarizes the weighty significance of this part of the 20th century and challenges young readers to prevent history from repeating itself. Bartoletti lets many of the subjects’ words, emotions, and deeds speak for themselves, bringing them together clearly to tell this story unlike anyone else has.
School Library Journal

What was it like to be a teenager in Germany under Hitler? Bartoletti draws on oral histories, diaries, letters, and her own extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors, Hitler Youth, resisters, and bystanders to tell the history from the viewpoints of people who were there. Most of the accounts and photos bring close the experiences of those who followed Hitler and fought for the Nazis, revealing why they joined, how Hitler used them, what it was like. Henry Mentelmann, for example, talks about Kristallnacht, when Hitler Youth and Storm Troopers wrecked Jewish homes and stores, and remembers thinking that the victims deserved what they got. The stirring photos tell more of the story. One particularly moving picture shows young Germans undergoing de-Nazification by watching images of people in the camps. The handsome book design, with black-and-white historical photos on every double-page spread, will draw in readers and help spark deep discussion, which will extend beyond the Holocaust curriculum. The extensive back matter is a part of the gripping narrative.


This, like Between Shades of Gray, would be well used for Holcoaust Memorial Day. It would also be a good booktalk for middle school students. In a school library setting, this would be a good companion piece to a class reading The Diary of Anne Frank; reading excerpts from this book and showing the pictures would help pique interest in the era.


Bartoletti, S. C. (2005). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Medlar, A. (2005, May 30). Book of the week: Hitler youth by susan campbell bartoletti. School Library Journal, 176. Retrieved from https://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA604629.html

Rochman, H. (2005, April 15). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. Booklist. Retrieved from https://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=1180952&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

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Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.


The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas


This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.


Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can-she hopes-be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers-before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews


This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.


Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 2: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

September 8th, 2012 — 10:55pm

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was published in 1910 in serial form, in a magazine intended for adults. Upon its publication in book form in 1911, it has become a popular and classic book for children.

Mary Lennox is an unpleasant child who has been raised in India, mostly by Indian servants — her parents have very little to do with her. Her parents are wealthy British citizens and are very beautiful, so they have hired servants to keep their disagreeable, sickly looking child out of their way; the servants subsequently give Mary everything she wants in order to keep their lives easily and to keep her from throwing fits, so she has grown up to be a very spoiled, albeit lonely, child. Her only associations are her ayah, who raises her but doesn’t particularly like her. She’s unaffectionate, rude, and has a quick temper when she doesn’t get her way.

When cholera breaks out at the Lennox house, most of the servants die from the disease. Amid the panic and the horrible sounds of people dying and others mourning, Mary hides herself in her nursery. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, the house is silent. She hears footsteps in the hall and a few military officers enter her room and are very surprised to see her standing there. It turns out that while Mary was asleep, her parents died of cholera and the remaining servants left the house, abandoning her.

She is sent to live in Yorkshire to live with Mr. Archibald Craven, her uncle through marriage (Mr. Craven’s wife was the sister of Mary’s father). When she gets to Misselthwaite Manor, it seems that her life is not going to change much from her life in India — Mr. Craven is often away on business and when he is home, he likes to be alone. Mary is told that she will have to entertain herself and has a list of rooms she’s not allowed to explore in the house. Mrs. Medlock, who runs the house, is an older woman who doesn’t wish to be burdened with Mary, so Martha, a young servant in the house, is given the task of keeping Mary’s room. Martha is a cheerful young girl who entertains Mary with stories of her family, including her younger brother, Dickon. It’s Martha who tells Mary the most about Mr. Craven, in her friendly Yorkshire gossip way: Mr. Craven had a wife whom he loved dearly. One day, she was sitting in her rose garden when the tree branch she was on broke; she fell and died. Mr. Craven locked the door to his wife’s garden and buried the key and has been mourning her loss ever since. Mary is intrigued by the garden and wants to find it and enter it somehow. Mrs. Medlock, however, tries to keep Mary from discovering too much of the house; she discourages her when she asks about the garden, and when Mary hears crying in the house, Mrs. Medlock insists that it’s the wind.

She occupies her time in the house by exploring the grounds and the moor. She meets the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and becomes friends with a redbreasted robin that Weatherstaff has raised. Mary becomes friendlier and more acclimated to British life as she spends more time with Martha and Weatherstaff; when she first arrived to Misselthwaite Manor, she had never dressed herself and is embarrassed when Martha teases her about it. She spends more time outdoors and her skin gradually loses the sickly yellow pallor.

One day, as she’s whistling and following the robin, the bird lands on a section of unturned ground. Mary notices a key there, which she imagines has to be the key to the secret garden. A few days later, she follows the bird again and the wind moves some of the ivy covering the walls to the garden and reveals the door that had been hidden by overgrowth for ten years. She enters the garden and is amazed by its beauty and that some of the flowers are still growing after ten years of neglect (hello, symbolism). She begins weeding and working in the garden, determined to make it thrive again. When Mary asks Martha at her lunch that day about different plants and tells her she wishes she could garden a little to further improve her health, Martha tells her that Dickon knows all about plants and writes a letter for Dickon to use Mary’s allowance to buy seeds and garden tools and have him deliver them to the manor. When Dickon arrives, Mary is instantly taken with him, as he has a gentle way with animals and is very knowledgeable of the landscape. She shows him the garden and he agrees to help her, though she makes him promise to keep the garden a secret. She also develops a crush on him, much to Martha’s amusement.

When she finally meets Mr. Craven, she’s surprised to find that he isn’t an ogre, though his face is lined with pain, from a back ailment, and misery, from mourning his wife. Mary convinces him to not hire a governess for her, but to instead grant her “a bit of earth” for her to plant a garden. He agrees, and tells her that he’ll be gone for the summer. All the better for her to grow a secret garden.

During her stay at Misselthwaite Manor, she has heard the sound of crying in the manor, but whenever she asks Mrs. Medlock or Martha about it, they either blame the wind or deny its existence. One night, determined to find the source, she discovers a hidden room, with a boy lying in the bed and crying. They’re both equally as surprised to see each other; it turns out that the boy is Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin. Colin stays in bed because he has something wrong with his spine, and his father rarely visits him because Colin reminds him of his wife. Mary tells Colin about the garden, and in order to keep the garden a secret and from Colin demanding the servants to take him into the garden that is supposed to not exist, Mary promises that she will take him to the garden once she has fixed it up.

Mary begins to visit Colin regularly, telling him stories of living in India and what happens in the moor with Dickon, his animals, and the garden. Mrs. Medlock and Mr. Craven discover them and mildly panic, but after Colin tells them that he wants to see Mary (he is treated as if he’s made of glass by everyone and is granted everything he wants; if he doesn’t get something or is unhappy, he throws a fit and everyone worries about his health. Mary compares him to a Rajah) and after a few warnings from Mr. Craven about being careful and minding Colin’s health, they allow it. Everyone in the house is nervous about Colin’s health because, as a baby, Mr. Craven was afraid that Colin would inherit his spinal deformity. He has stayed in bed because of it, which has made Colin sickly and weak, which makes everyone think that he’s dying. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mary and Dickon continue with their adventures in the garden. After Colin has a particularly horrid tantrum (he thinks that he felt a lump on his back and that he’s going to die), Mary helps him to calm down and tells him that they will take him into the garden in a chair so he can get fresh air. Just the idea of going outside helps Colin feel better, until the day comes when Dickon pushes Colin out to the garden in a wheelchair. The garden, which changed his life as a baby when his mother died in it, changes his life once more:

But Colin had actually dropped back against his cushions, even though he gasped with delight, and he had covered his eyes with his hands and held them there shutting out everything until they were inside and the chair stopped as if by magic and the door was closed. Not till then did he take them away and look round and round and round as Dickon and Mary had done. And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch. And in wonder Mary and Dickon stood and stared at him. He looked so strange and different because a pink glow of color had actually crept all over him—ivory face and neck and hands and all.

“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

However, while they’re in the garden, Weatherstaff sees them when he’s on a ladder. Considering that the garden is supposed to be locked and impenetrable, this is a little difficult for Mary to explain. When Weatherstaff confronts the kids, Colin pulls the old “do you know who I am?!?!” routine. Weatherstaff identifies Colin as “the cripple” which angers Colin so much that he throws his covers off his lap and stands up to prove that neither his back nor his legs are crooked. He demands that Weatherstaff keep the secret of the garden, to which Weatherstaff reveals a secret of his own — he’s been kept on the staff because Colin’s mom liked him, and he has been tending to the garden since her death.

Colin and Mary visit the garden daily, and Colin gets stronger and healthier. They conspire to keep Colin’s improving health a secret to surprise his father, who has been away. They, as well as Dickon, begin referring to Colin’s improving health as “Magic,” from Mary’s stories of magic in India.

Around the same time that Colin realizes that he is well, Mr. Craven finds that his mood is also improving. He has been in mourning and miserable for ten years, but now finds himself thinking of Misselthwaite Manor fondly and appreciating the world around him. He has a dream that his wife is calling to him from her garden. As he travels home, he finds himself thinking of Colin and regretting his time spent away; he also reflects on how he could have been a better father. He makes a promise to himself to try to do better. Maybe he should have thought of that before his son turned into a spoiled, entitled brat. Just a thought.

When Mr. Craven arrives at Misselthwaite, he asks Mrs. Medlock where Colin is; when she replied that he’s “in the garden,” he somehow knows that Colin is in his wife’s garden, even though the key is supposed to be buried. He runs to the garden and literally runs into Colin, who has been running out of it with Mary. Mr. Craven can scarcely believe that the tall, healthy boy standing in front of him is Colin, but Colin takes him into the now blooming garden and tells him about the Magic.

The Burnett Fountain in Central Park, NYC. “It is believed that the two figures, a reclining boy playing the flute and a young girl holding the bowl, represent Mary and Dickon, the main characters in The Secret Garden. The bowl is a functioning birdbath where small birds drink during three seasons of the year. The sculpture stands on the edge of a small concrete pool that features a variety of water lilies.”


There were several things that irked me about this book. The native Yorkshire characters (namely Weatherstaff, Martha, and Dickon) spoke in a Yorkshire dialect that I’m not convinced wasn’t just Burnett throwing letters together. Also, when the English characters talk about the people of India, whether they were Mary’s servants or just Indians in general, they refer to them as “blacks,” which struck me as unnecessarily racist. I know that there’s something to be said for historical context and understanding the atmosphere of the time, but it made me squirm nonetheless. The character of Colin was completely insufferable. Mary’s character had growth — she began as “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” but changed into a girl who could dress herself and had people who liked her. Colin was introduced late into the novel, but even to the end, he holds himself as a prince and makes demands of people three times his age. He just….ugh. And he wasn’t even sick! Luckily Dickon’s character was there to be goodness and light and talk to animals and just generally be great at life.

The symbolism of the garden was very strong in the novel. It was the place where the Craven family was destroyed, with the death of Mr. Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother, but was also the place where the family was reformed, with it ending with Mr. Craven and Colin in the garden. There’s also a restorative power granted to living things: both Mary and Colin are told by different characters that they need to get fresh air in order to heal and become better people. Indeed, it isn’t until Mary starts exploring the moor and Colin gets into the garden that they become “real” children, laughing and playing. However, as a child who preferred being inside and reading to being outside and sweating, I don’t appreciate this message as much.


Burnett’s classic story of a disagreeable and self-centered little girl and her equally disagreeable invalid cousin is as real and wise and enthralling now as it was when it was first written over 75 years ago. The strength of her characterizations pulls readers into the story, and the depth inherent in the seemingly simple plot continues to make this sometimes forgotten story as vital to the maturation of young readers as Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Hague’s illustrations enhance the story beautifully, capturing as they do, both the old-fashioned and timeless quality of the tale. The charm, clarity, and muted tones of Hague’s paintings add dimension to each part of the tale. A reissue of an old classic to be treasured by a new generation of children (and their parents)!
School Library Journal (1987)

Bratty and spoiled Mary Lennox is orphaned when her parents fall victim to a cholera outbreak in India. As a result, Mary becomes the ward of an uncle in England she has never met. As she hesitantly tries to carve a new life for herself at imposing and secluded Misselthwaite Manor, Mary befriends a high-spirited boy named Dickon and investigates a secret garden on the Manor grounds. She also discovers a sickly young cousin, Colin, who has been shut away in a hidden Manor room. Together Mary and Dickon help Colin blossom, and in the process Mary finds her identity and melts the heart of her emotionally distant uncle. Bailey makes fluid transitions between the voices and accents of various characters, from terse Mrs. Medlock and surly groundskeeper Ben to chipper housemaid Martha. And most enjoyably, she gives Mary a believably childlike voice.
Publisher’s Weekly (2003)


The easiest use would be to manipulate the garden theme. Using this in a teen craft project would give several options — making origami flowers, doing a floral arrangement, working in the library flowerbeds. It could also be used as a teen book club or book of the month for April, with a gardening project for Earth Day.


Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The secret garden. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17396/17396-h/17396-h.htm

Central Park Conservancy. (2010). “The official website of new york city’s central park.” Burnett Fountain. Retrieved from https://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/north-end/burnett-fountain.html

Mellon, Constance A. (1987). “The secret garden (book review).” School Library Journal. 33(11), 80. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5733324/secret-garden-book-review

Publisher’s Weekly.com. (2003). “Religion review: the secret garden.” Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4001-0072-9

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20. Native Son by Richard Wright

January 22nd, 2012 — 7:25pm

Native Son by Richard Wright was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American who is living in poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, and is reportedly based on the case of Robert Nixon. The novel is split into three separate books: Fear, Flight, and Fate.

Bigger Thomas is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a ghetto of Chicago. In the opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the dark in the small apartment that he and his family shares. A rat appears in the room and Bigger chases it and kills it with an iron skillet; he then terrorizes his sister, Vera, with the dead rat until Vera faints. Bigger’s mother scolds him, while Bigger’s internal monologue reveals that he hates his family because they’re suffering and he can’t do anything about it — he feels that he’ll only ever be able to have low wage, menial work and feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that he masks with ferocity and violence. Because that’s healthy and normal.

Bigger’s mom wants him to get a job with a white man named Mr. Dalton (who happens to be the Thomas family’s landlord), but instead Bigger meets with some of his friends at a local poolhall. They start talking and Bigger reveals that every time he encounters a white person he feels that something bad is going to happen to him. He and his friends, Gus, G.H., and Jack, plan a robbery of a white man’s store; they are all afraid of what will happen if they’re caught robbing and hurting a white man, but none of them admit it. They’ve burgled many black-owned businesses before, but robbing from whites is new territory. Bigger is so intimidated by white people that he no longer sees them as individuals, instead picturing them as an all-encompassing pressure of “whiteness” that is smothering him like a blanket. When they meet back at the poolhall to head out for the robbery, Bigger brutally attacks Gus in order to sabotage the night. This makes him realize that he needs to listen to his mother and seek out a job with Mr. Dalton.

He gets a job as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton, in owning the majority shares of several building in the South Side ghetto, has been exploiting black families for years; however, he sees himself as a philanthropist because he donates money to black schools and gives jobs to black boys like Bigger.

On Bigger’s first day of work, he shows up to the Daltons’ house and is immediately ill at ease; the house is large, Dalton and his wife, who is blind, use large words that Bigger doesn’t understand, and the Dalton’s daughter, Mary, comes home and asks Bigger why he isn’t in a union, which makes Bigger dislike her and fear that she will cost him his job. That night, Mary has Bigger drive her and her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Mary and Jan are eager to show off their progressive ideals and racial tolerance. They force Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side and sit with them at the table. They order a bottle of rum and take it with them for the rest of the night. Bigger drives Jan and Mary around while they get completely trashed and grope each other in the back seat of the car while Bigger drives them around the park.

When they return to the Dalton’s house, Mary is too drunk to get out of the car, much less maneuver the stairs, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is a little drunk as well, and intoxicated by being so close to a white girl, and when they get to Mary’s room, Bigger kisses her.

Just as Bigger is putting Mary in her bed, Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway. He knows that, because she’s blind, she can’t see him but he is still terrified that she will realize that he’s in her precious innocent daughter’s room and have him fired, if not worse. He’s also afraid that drunk Mary will say or do something that will make Mrs. Dalton further enter the room, so he puts a pillow over her face to muffle her; when Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes that he has smothered her to death. Very Shakespearean.

Bigger realizes that the punishment for murder will be a lot less than an accusation of sexual assault. He decides to frame Jan, hoping that the Daltons will think poorly of Jan and his Communist leanings and assume that he’s dangerous and has kidnapped Mary. He takes Mary’s body down to the furnace to burn it; when he has trouble pushing her body into the small opening, he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head to make it fit. After he gets her body in the fire, he adds extra coal to the furnace and goes home. What.


Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.

Having commited murder and seemingly gotten away with it has given Bigger a sense of power that he has previously never known. When he goes back to the Daltons’ for work the next day, Mrs. Dalton has noticed Mary’s disappearance and asks Bigger about the happenings of the previous night. He makes an effort to point the finger at Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends him home for the day and Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie is a stereotypical woman, nagging that he doesn’t love her and Bigger gives her money to shut her up. Bigger tells Bessie that Mary Dalton has disappeared and she begins to talk about different disappearances, including one where people murdered a child and asked for ransom money later. Bigger gets a cartoon lightbulb over his head and decides to do just that. He tells Bessie that he knows a little about what happened to Mary and is going to blackmail the Daltons; unfortunately, Bessie’s responses to him make him realize that she’s started to suspect that he’s had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.

When he returns to the Daltons’ house for work, they have hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to try to track down Mary. Mr. Britten talks to Bigger; Bigger senses that Britten is a little bit racist and accuses Jan based on his religion (Jewish), politics (Communist), and his attitude toward black people (friendly). In talking to Britten, Bigger takes on the role of the simple-minded black boy, which is almost as chilling as his role of violence; he is intuitive enough to know when to play into the stereotypes that are expected of him. He manages to fool Mr. Dalton, who thinks that he’s not a bad boy, but not Britten, who states that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they’re all bad in some sense. Britten and Mr. Dalton bring in Jan and grill him about the night before, but of course his story is different than Bigger’s. When Mr. Dalton offers to pay Jan for information about Mary, Jan leaves.

Bigger checks on the furnace and then heads to Bessie. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls a gun on him. Needless to say, they don’t have a very long chat. When Bigger gets to Bessie’s, he composes a ransom note and signs it “Red,” to further add suspicion to the pinko Communist Jan. In the letter, he demands $10,000 and adds a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie has begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing and accuses Bigger of killing Mary. Bigger admits it, but says that it’s okay:

“If you killed her you’ll kill me,” she said. “I ain’t in this…. You told me you never was going to kill.”
“All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us.”

Bessie begs to be left out, but Bigger doesn’t want her to turn him in, so she has to stay involved. He delivers the ransom note by slipping it under the Daltons’ door when he reports for work.

Reporters have now caught wind of the story and descend upon the Dalton house. Bigger is told to clean out the furnace; he sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. At this point, some of the reporters have come down to the furnace and one of them grabs a shovel and offers to help clear the ashes.

When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. He runs to Bessie’s house to stop her from going to collect the ransom money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.

Bigger and Bessie go to an abandoned building to hide out, and Bessie takes this time to tell Bigger just how much she hates him for ruining her life. Maybe not such a good idea to insult and anger the man with a streak of murderous violence. Bigger rapes Bessie on a pile of blankets that they brought with them and, after realizing that he can’t take her with him but he can’t leave her behind to turn him in, he hits her several times on the head with a brick that is lying nearby and throws her body down an airshaft.

Bigger goes through the city finding vacated apartments and alleys to sleep and eat, as all of the money he had was in Bessie’s pocket and is now at the bottom of an airshaft. He finds a newspaper and realizes that his time is probably running out — the press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her, and the authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist (read: white) accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.

It begins to snow in the city and Bigger is forced inside. In one of the vacated apartments, Bigger thinks about life in the city and what it has become for blacks. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police and he blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Bigger decides that when he is captured, he will not say that the crime was an accident.

The police arrive to search the building where Bigger is hiding. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”


In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.

The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”

Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.

Jan comes to visit Bigger in jail. He says that he is not angry for Bigger trying to blame him and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.

Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.

All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.

At the inquest in the courtroom, Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.

The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.

Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . .”

He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. “Go on, Bigger.”

“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”

Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.

In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.

Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.

Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.

Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.

Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.

After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.

Max visits Bigger again and tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.

Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right.

Richard Wright has been criticized for using the character of Max to promote his Communist ideology — while Wright has said that Max is promoting a world in which there is no black or white, there is no evidence in the book that the future will lead us to that world. If anything, the world is almost even more fractured after the trial. Wright was a member of the Communist party when he writing the book, which is why the heroes of his book were Communists, as well.

I first read this book in college and it scared the crap out of me. The thing that is the most unsettling is the anger. Bigger Thomas is one of the most angry characters in literature. Reading it in the 21st century was disturbing, and I don’t live with that sort of racial tension. I can only imagine what reading it in the 1940s was like. I know that there still is racism in America, but I have never experienced that intense hate and violence. Native Son is a very important book, if only for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of white people and making people realize how the other side lives.

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