The Story of Ruby Bridges
Robert Coles & George Ford
I’m a complete sucker when it comes to buying books for my daughter; it’s a wonder she hasn’t realized yet that my innate parental ability to say “no” utterly ceases when we cross the threshold of a bookstore. I’m pretty selective about what I’ll buy, but the result usually looks something like this: child suggests a book I don’t like; I say “no”; I have sudden massive guilt attack for denying her request (“What kind of a parent refuses books?” rings through my head); I suggest another book that looks more promising; repeat. We walk out with new books.
About a year ago, the haul from this sort of interchange in Half Price Books included a used Scholastic copy of The Story of Ruby Bridges, and I’ve been blessing my inability to refuse books ever since. It’s one of those happy finds that makes unplanned book-buying such a joy, and it’s a lovely instance of theological kids lit that isn’t a Bible retelling or fictional allegory. It’s a true story, beautifully illustrated, and although I started reading it to my daughter when she was 2, it’s a fitting picture book all the way up to 8 or 9 years old.
Written by the child psychiatrist Robert Coles (who has written and taught extensively on the moral and spiritual lives of children), The Story of Ruby Bridges recounts Ruby’s experience as the first black child to attend the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, in 1960, amidst the protests and school boycott of the white community. She was escorted to school by federal marshals and attended the first grade in an empty classroom, hustled in and out past an angry mob every single day.
Although the story is concerned with momentous historical events, Coles places Ruby’s experience at the center of the narrative – and at the center of Ruby’s experience is her Christian faith. This is a tale of social justice, of bravery in the face of evil, and of the power of forgiveness, carried on the back of a little girl’s deep belief in what Jesus did on the cross. I won’t give away what the story reveals about Ruby’s daily journey to and from school – it’s much better to discover it for yourself – but trust me, it’s powerful and inspiring without being in the least bit preachy or sentimental. Young children can both identify with and admire Ruby; she is a call to virtue that is within their reach, though their heroism may not take place as publicly or historically.
The story is told in simple, straightforward language that is powerfully enriched by the illustrations. No attempt is made to explain the historical context of racism in America, or to make it more comprehensible; rather, the gentle illustrations of Ruby’s mother kissing her children goodnight and the contorted faces of the angry white mob make it plain that racism is hatred, and it is an evil against fellow human beings. When we brought this book home, I was sure my daughter was too young for it, but she was completely enraptured by the expressions on the characters’ faces long before she could fully understand the story. “Why is Ruby sad, Mommy? Why are those people angry?” Her engagement with the pictures prompted some great conversations, and now that she can understand more about the story, it remains a regular in our reading rotation. Given the richness and the beauty of this courageous girl’s story, I predict it will stay there for a long time.