Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, Jacqueline. Ill. by E.B. Louis (2001). The Other Side. New York: Putnam. ISBN 0399231161.

The Other Side is about a fence. A fence which separates a field. A young black girl lives on one side of it and her mama tells her not to go to the other side. “She said it wasn’t safe.” But “that summer” there was a little white girl who climbed up on the fence and stared over at the little black girl. And she stared back.

Little by little, the little black girl starts getting clues that the little white girl is lonely. For one, she asked if she could jump rope with the little black girl and her friends, when the little black girl saw the little white girl in town the girl sometimes looked sad and the little white girl even sat on the fence wearing a raincoat in the rain, “She let herself get all wet and acted like she didn’t even care. Sometimes I saw her dancing around in puddles, splashing and laughing.”

One day, when the rains stopped, the little black girl went outside, somehow changed. “I felt brave that day. I felt free.” The little girl asked the little black girl her name. “ ‘Clover,’ I said. ‘My name’s Annie,’ she said. ‘Annie Paul.’” Annie invited Clover to sit up on the fence with her. “ ‘A fence like this was made for sitting on,’ Annie said.”

But Clover’s mama told her not to go on the other side. “ ‘My mama says the same thing. But she never said nothing about sitting on it.’” Clover, not able to argue with that logic climbed up on the fence. And that’s how she spent the rest of the summer. Sitting up on that fence, spending her days with Annie.

Clover knew her mother saw her sitting on that fence and constantly waited to hear her tell Clover to get down. “But she never did.”

Eventually, Clover’s friends—a group of little black girls—let Clover and Annie skip rope with them. Annie jumped to the other side. “When we were too tired to jump anymore, we sat up on the fence, all of us in a long line.”

After sitting on the fence awhile, Annie said. “ ‘Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down.’ And Clover nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Someday.’”

The Other Side uses a very simple concept—a common, non-violent, socially-accepted property marker, a fence—to signify the unspoken barrier between two young girls of different races. Both girls are perhaps lonely and are definitely curious about one another, but have been told by their parents not to cross the fence, giving no other explanation than “it’s not safe.” This is a beautifully simple way to illustrate how cultural barriers are fostered from generation to generation. Ironically, just as in The Other Side, it takes the bravery of a child—someone who isn’t so afraid of getting hurt or who somehow feels “braver” or “freer” than an adult—to consider tearing down these barriers. If not now, then, “someday.”

The language in The Other Side is neither didactic nor preachy. The tone is neither humorous nor serious, it is merely matter-of-fact. The story is told in such a voice that it is believably a child’s account. There are subtle hints that the fence represents more than just a barrier between Clover’s and Annie’s yards. On the first page, the narrator says, “That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.” Then, later, after Annie has attempted a contact and been refused by Clover’s friends, the narrator says, “That summer everyone and everything on the other side of that fence seemed far away.” Another linguistic thing I found remarkable about the book was that throughout the book, the narrator uses “that” to refer to something that represents distance. For instance, up until they introduce themselves, Clover refers to Annie as “that girl” (afterward, “that girl” becomes Annie) and until Clover’s friends accept Annie into their circle, the fence upon which Annie and Clover spend their time is referred to as “that fence” (and “that fence” becomes “the fence”).

The illustrations are phenomenal. They are impressionistic water colors but are amazingly realistic. The artist didn’t try to downplay the difference in color by choosing a lighter black girl or a tanner white girl after which to model the characters. Instead, Clover is very dark-skinned and her hair is accurately styled according to the tradition of young African-American girls as is Annie’s reddish-blonde (and obviously Scotch-Irish) half ponytail. Neither girl is remarkably romanticized (translation: over-exaggeratively “pretty”), so the illustrations do not detract from the power of the story but rather serve their purpose to illustrate what’s happening. One thing I did notice was that while the fence remains as a shadowy, preventive figure, everything else in the scenes is brightly lit but summer sunshine (even the rainy scene), perhaps symbolizing the hope surrounding them or the bravery inspired by a care-free summer.

It is striking that seemingly innocent physical barriers end up becoming almost tangible cultural borders. If this book had been written for an older crowd (young adult or adults) it might have used a train track to illustrate the same simple concept. However, using a fence—a normal, everyday sight for most children—is less menacing but still carries the same message.

The ONLY thing that struck me as troublesome is that Annie always seems to be the one initiating contact. She asks for permission to play with the other girls. And she plays uninhibited in the rain. And she is the one who invites Clover to sit on the fence with her. AND she’s the one who suggests that some day someone will destroy the fence. While on the one hand, her bravery and freedom may be historically accurate in the setting (based on the period suggested by the illustrations), it might suggest to readers that white people are more apt to take action while black people wait around for whites to move. Just an observation.

While this story is obviously about race, it doesn’t have to only be about that. A story like this could lead from a racial discussion to conversations about ways we feel “other-ness.” It could also open dialogue about other physical barriers we use to make ourselves feel safer. And why do we feel that separating ourselves makes us feel safe? What is the paradox between wanting to be near others when we are afraid of the unknown and the “security” of barriers we erect?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Woodson (If You Come Softly; I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This) lays out her resonant story like a poem, its central metaphor a fence that divides blacks from whites. Lewis's (My Rows and Piles of Coins) evocative watercolors lay bare the personalities and emotions of her two young heroines, one African-American and one white. As the girls, both instructed by their mothers not to climb over the fence, watch each other from a distance, their body language and facial expressions provide clues to their ambivalence about their mothers' directives. Intrigued by her free-spirited white neighbor, narrator Clover watches enviously from her window as "that girl" plays outdoors in the rain. And after footloose Annie introduces herself, she points out to Clover that "a fence like this was made for sitting on"; what was a barrier between the new friends' worlds becomes a peaceful perch where the two spend time together throughout the summer. By season's end, they join Clover's other pals jumping rope and, when they stop to rest, "We sat up on the fence, all of us in a long line." Lewis depicts bygone days with the girls in dresses and white sneakers and socks, and Woodson hints at a bright future with her closing lines: "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down," says Annie, and Clover agrees. Pictures and words make strong partners here, convincingly communicating a timeless lesson. Ages 5-up

School Library Journal:
Gr 1-4-… Woodson's spare text is easy and unencumbered. In her deft care, a story that might have suffered from heavy-handed didacticism manages to plumb great depths with understated simplicity. In Lewis's accompanying watercolor illustrations, Clover and her friends pass their summer beneath a blinding sun that casts dark but shallow shadows. Text and art work together beautifully.

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