“My mother was a Cheerleader, but not the type of cheerleader you’re probably thinking of. She didn’t become a Cheerleader until she was thirty-six years old. Sometimes her cheers came out so full of foul language that the newspapers couldn’t even print the words. And on the radio and television reports, they always made sure the words of the cheers were obscure, just a mad batch of ladies’ voices all mixed together and blurry.”
In November of 1960 in New Orleans, four little girls began attending elementary school for the first time. On their way to classes, grown men and women would throw garbage and spew insults at them. Classmates threatened to poison their lunches. Other families withdrew their students from the school. Why?
Because of the color of their skin. These little girls were the first African-American children to be integrated into the previously all-white school system, and they met a formidable wall of resistance. Louise Collins’ mother is one of the protesters, a member of the Cheerleaders. The Cheerleaders gather outside the school doors and hurl racist propaganda at the girls as they pass. Louise can’t understand her mother’s motivation, and she isn’t sure how she feels about integration. After all, up until now, black and white people have never really mixed together, and she hadn’t stopped to consider whether it was right or wrong. It just was.
When a visitor from New York comes to stay in the boarding house Louise’s mother runs, Louise finds herself facing the truth about her family and her beliefs about segregation. In this coming-of-age story, set against a backdrop of hatred, violence, and secrets, Louise learns that sometimes “small steps matter just as much as grand gestures”.
I like books that fill us in on the other side of the story. It is not always easy to remember that people whose viewpoints differ from ours are, in fact, still human, with the same flaws and anxieties that we have. This is the case in My Mother the Cheerleader, a book that carefully peels back the layers of hate displayed by Louise’s mother, and exposes her underlying pain. The readers (and Louise) want to hate her, and there is absolutely no question that her actions are abominable, but of course, the story is far more complex (and realistic) than a simple bad-person-doing-bad-things formula.
You’ll appreciate Louise’s curiosity and pre-teen awkwardness, and fans of Steinbeck will be delighted to see several references to the literary great. And Ruby Bridges, one of the little girls who began school? The epilogue tells us that, in 1961, there were no more protesters outside the school doors and she moved up to the second grade.
Author’s website: http://robertsharenow.com/
Sharenow, Robert. My Mother the Cheerleader. New York: HarperTeen, 2007. 288 pp. Ages 13 and up.
If you liked this story because it was set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, try Ninth Ward! If you liked the discussion of race and segregation, there are hundreds of wonderful books on the subject, try The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.