BUSING BREWSTER: By Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, N.Y. 2010. $16.99, hardcover.
By ROB HAMMETT
Only 40 short years ago America was desperately struggling with the long overdue desegregation of its public schools. Part-time Island residents Richard Michelson (author) and R.G. Roth (illustrator) have collaborated on a significant children’s historical fiction that is a poignant and important reminder of this critical moment in recent history. Their cutting edge and insightful work placed Busing Brewster on The New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books list for 2010, which is no surprise as the artwork in this book is superior.
Set in the early 1970s, Busing Brewster is all about unsung heros. It is the story of a young boy and his family caught in the turmoil of enforced busing. Mama receives a letter stating that Brewster and his older brother Bryan will be bused to Central School at the start of the curricular year. Apprehension rears its head in different ways for Brewster, an introvert, and Bryan, an extrovert. Amid a mob of angry, sign-waving, stone-throwing adults, they arrive at Central to find that the halls are full of children who have inherited their parents uneducated fears. But as is so often the case, guidance and hope are found amid the mayhem.
In an encouragingly bold style, Mr. Michelson steps slightly outside the conventional parameters of children’s literature when addressing the subject of forced busing and all the hopes and fears that it stirred. In a 2010 interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith, the author was asked why he tackled this particular topic. “Because that is how you build a society’s foundation. You start with the children and work your way up. School kids are dealing with the issues of friendship, and the moral complications of wanting to speak out for what is right, and still fit in with the majority. I try to tap into their issues and give a larger historical context for the things they are already thinking about,” he said. In the interview, he also said “the subject of how we negotiate our differences and heal our wounds interests me in a way that zombie bunnies from outer space do not.”
And indeed busing did cause wounds, big ones, which in turn forced negotiations and healing processes. Whether or not busing was a good idea can be left to individual opinion. The fact remains that it did happen and from it our society progressed. Do the innocent characters in Busing Brewster suffer and pay the price for society’s experiments? Did busing improve the lives of Brewster and Bryan? The reader will decide. One way or the other the characters in Busing Brewster, unwittingly at the time, have become heros. They do what is asked of them in ways that can be hard to imagine in the 21st century. They stand strong and move forward. It is impossible to do anything less than fully respect these heros for their fortitude. Although unseen, Miss Evelyn, iconic battle-ax that she is, demands that all children learn to read, therefore incorporating within themselves the base of all education. Miss O’Grady knows that truly anything is possible when doors remain widely open to all children. Mama, with steadfast foresight and bravery, possesses positive maternal understanding, strength and courage as she sends her children into a potentially world-changing yet volatile situation. Bryan openly speaks his mind and Brewster, the youngest and most at risk of all the characters, assenting to the powers that be, acknowledges his hopes and fears and moves forward with youthful grace. Truly a hero of the most laudable kind.
Illustrator R.G. Roth’s prize-winning collage style fully engages the reader and adds powerful depth to the author’s story line.
In an author’s note at the end of the book, Mr. Michelson offers this partial postscript:
“Brewster dreams of becoming president. Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States in 2008. I wrote this story five years earlier, in 2003. While Miss O’Grady and Brewster’s mother might not have been surprised, it never occurred to me while writing Busing Brewster that such a historic event would become a reality in my lifetime, much less before the book’s publication. My words have taken on a greater resonance than I intended, which is what authors hope for.”