Sixth-grader Lu Olivera and her Latin American family find themselves in the middle of a civil rights struggle in their Red Grove, Alabama neighborhood one hot summer in 1970. The tensions run high in her integrated school: black kids sit on one side of the room, white kids on the other; she sits in the middle row. She’s in the the middle child, smack dab between her older, activist sister and younger twin siblings; she’s in the middle when it comes to local politics: many of the white families want to re-elect segregationist governor George Wallace, while Lu and her family support incumbent Albert Brewer. Many of her classmates are leaving their school to go to a private, white school. When Lu befriends fellow track runner Belinda Gresham, an African-American girl, and her classmates turn on her, she decides it’s time to take a stand.
Inspired by the author’s Alabama childhood, My Year in the Middle is a story of civil rights and finding one’s voice. Lu puts up with the passive racism in her community, with remarks like, “she’s from South America, she doesn’t mind going to school with Negroes”. But seeing how her African-American friends are treated by her fellow classmates, and by the general public in her town, pushes her buttons. Lu is a character who stands out: she’s a character of color stuck in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, but because she’s not African-American, she’s tolerated: until she digs in her heels and says, “No more”. She gives and receives support from her black classmates and from Sam, her classmate and crush, a white preacher’s son who is bullied for his civil rights stance.
Lu is at once relatable and a mirror for our society today. We’re still divided, and more and more people are forced from the middle to take a stand. Readers may recognize recent political speeches and attitudes in George Wallace’s condescending stumping and the racial tension that permeates Lu’s classroom. My Year in the Middle is a solid work of historical fiction that provides excellent discussion topics for readers on civil rights, social justice, and where we’ve gone versus where we are.