Teaching children about America’s history of racism is challenging. While we discuss current events and historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we look for age-appropriate resources to tell more personal parts of our history in a way that a child can understand. Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey is one perfect example of an important story from a child’s point of view. It’s historically accurate and a work of fiction, allowing concepts to be educational and also relatable.
The story begins in Chicago in the 1950s. Ruth’s father buys a new car, and the family plans a road trip to visit relatives in Alabama. Ruth and her parents are turned away from gas stations, hotels, and restaurants because they are black. They are warned about Jim Crow, which Ruth understandably confuses as a person’s name. They are able to stay with a friend in Tennessee, and he gives them helpful advice on how to finish their journey safely. They find an Esso service station, where they purchase a Green Book. The Green Book is a travel directory of black-friendly businesses. Ruth’s parents give her the task of finding resources in the book through the rest of their travels, and they have a safe trip.
The specifics of the story are important because they are realistic and true, but also wonderful is the way Ramsey shares the story. Ruth is a child, so her observations are child-like. She feels embarrassed when she is forced to relieve herself in the woods because she’s not allowed to use a restroom, but her mother reminds her that the only ones who should feel ashamed are the people who made those rules. Ruth notices how different things are once they’ve left Chicago. She notices, too, how the Green Book is so helpful to her family, and she appreciates the sense of community that created it. No adult editorializing is necessary because children are very skilled in recognizing injustice. Ruth’s emotions are clearly explained in very familiar ways, and children reading the story will have strong natural empathy for her and her family. It’s also affirming to see Ruth notice the importance of persistence and the value of community as she problem-solves using the Green Book.
The illustrations by Floyd Cooper are startling and pair beautifully with the story. They are soft, rich, and lovely. They evoke a sense of a hazy reflection or memory, but they are also very descriptive and powerful. We see scenery, faces, and emotion that give even more depth to the wonderful story.
Ruth and the Green Book is an ideal book for children in grades 1-4. It broaches racism, discrimination, and Jim Crow in a way that is real and honest but also won’t overwhelm a child. At the back of the book is one page devoted to the history and importance of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Wendell P. Alston, so children are able to learn even more. It’s no surprise that Ruth and the Green Book has won several awards including ALA Notable Children’s Book, Jane Addams Children’s book Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, Bluestem Award, Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, and many more.