Belle Teal Harper lives with her mother and grandmother, a "family of women," in the country outside her small town. Belle Teal and her friend Clarice are looking forward to the start of fifth grade when they will have pretty, young Miss Casey as their teacher.
But when school begins, Belle Teal has many challenges to face. Her grandmother is having disturbing moments of confusion and lapses of memory. Her mother is starting secretarial school and working long hours to pay the bills. Vanessa, a new girl in school, makes cruel comments about the Harpers' poverty.
The school itself is in the midst of a desegregation crisis. The time is 1962 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation is just beginning to take effect in this town. Three African-American children enter the town's school on opening day; one of them is in Belle Teal's class. Parents line up at the school to shout and protest, the most vocal being the father of Belle Teal's friend, Little Boss.
As the weeks go on, the protests disappear, but the resentment of many of the students remains. Belle Teal and Clarice make friends with Darryl, the new boy in their class, while others continue to harass him. Belle Teal devises a trick for the Halloween party to show other students that they can be friends with Darryl, but her scheme doesn't work; eventually a crisis involving Little Boss and his belligerent father, Big Boss, brings the situation to a climax.
Vanessa turns out to have a secret that, in part, explains her unpleasant behavior. Throughout the story, Miss Casey provides a steady influence for all the students as she tries to keep a volatile situation in hand. But it is Belle Teal who proves to be the real star of this story — a young girl growing into the resilience and understanding she needs to deal with difficult situations in her family and community.
Praise for Belle Teal
"An approachable piece of historical fiction." — The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Good-hearted and well-paced." — Kirkus
"Martin offers a coming-of-age story with a spunky young heroine who is caught between the daily life of a rural school child and the shattering changes that the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement bring to her small town." — VOYA
- 8, 9, 10
- Interest Level
- Grades 3 - 5
- Grade Level Equivalent
- Lexile Measure
- Guided Reading
- Number of Pages
- Historical Fiction, Multicultural