Review: Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock


Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock

When a segregated North Carolina town gets its first black teacher, two girls–one black, one white–come face-to-face with how prejudice affects their friendship.

Everything’s changing for Sarah Beth Willis. After Robin’s tragic accident, everyone seems different somehow. Days on the farm aren’t the same, and the simple fun of riding a bike or playing outside can be scary. And there’s talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly–Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She’s the first African American teacher. It’s 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening. For Sarah Beth, there are so many unanswered questions. What is all this talk about Freedom Riders and school integration? Why can’t she and Ruby become best friends? And who says school isn’t for anybody who wants to learn–or teach? In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.

Title: Ruby Lee & Me
Author: Shannon Hitchcock
Publication date: January 5, 2016

I really liked Ruby Lee & Me. It’s an easy read that covers a lot of ground but isn’t too heavy. There are issues important to the world at the time and ones that are more personal to Sarah and her family. The book synopsis makes it seem like Mrs. Smyre’s arrival is a central storyline in Ruby Lee & Me. Most of the book takes place in the summer, well before school begins. The African-American teacher is certainly an issue and there are several scenes that had a big impact on me, but it’s not given as much attention in the book it would seem. Sarah is much more focused on her sister’s accident and how to repair her relationship with Ruby after a misstep and whether they can be friends at school than she is on the new teacher.

I didn’t realize until I was more than halfway into Ruby Lee & Me, when Sarah and her family are preparing to watch the first moon walk on TV, that it takes place in 1969. If I’d had to guess, I probably would have said it was set about a decade earlier. I think it was the cover that threw me, but also I hadn’t known that school desegregation was still such an issue in 1969. To me, 1969 means Woodstock and The Brady Bunch. I don’t think even Cindy Brady wore clothing as old-fashioned (to my eyes) as the girls on the cover, or that Ruby Lee and Sarah would have been allowed to wear Marcia’s short skirts. But I wasn’t alive in 1969 and the author was. Parts of Ruby Lee & Me were based on her experiences growing up in North Carolina. There’s a short section in the back, with photos, where she relates these experiences.

4 stars