Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry


On Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th September, the Centre hosted a two-day symposium celebrating 40 years of Mildred D. Taylor’s classic children’s novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Originally published in 1976, Taylor’s best-known work has been read and loved by children and teachers alike. Researchers too have been compelled by the story of the Logan family, although as we discussed at the symposium, much work remains to be done.

On Friday, we started off with a keynote address from Michelle Martin, who has recently taken up the Beverley Cleary professorship at the University of Washington. Michelle talked about Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’, and demonstrated that throughout Taylor’s work, the single story is resisted – for black characters, white characters, male and female, there is no one way to be, no single stereotype, and this, Michelle suggested, is one of the great strengths of Taylor’s work. Michelle also talked about the continued lack of diversity in children’s publishing, reminding us that readers are still in danger of only hearing and seeing a single story.

Michelle Martin giving her keynote address
In our first panel, Time and Space, Danielle Cameron discussed Roll of Thunder in terms of cultural geography, talking about the ways in which freedom, fear and resistance are delineated within particular spaces and places in the novel. Next, Tammy Mielke talked about the phenomenon of rewriting the 1930s, comparing Roll of Thunder with William Armstrong’s Sounder. Tammy’s talk raised fascinating questions about voice and voicelessness, exploring the ways in which Taylor also gives voice to the white sharecropper experience, particularly through the character of Jeremy Simms.

The second panel, Intertexts and Translations, saw Dawn Sardella-Ayres talk about some of the specifically American ideologies of ownership and community that can be observed in both Taylor’s The Well and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The First Four Years. Bahar Eshraq joined us via Skype from Tehran to talk about the Persian translation of Roll of Thunder, originally broadcast as a radio play during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Bahar explained that the message of protecting the land against oppressors was particularly pertinent at the time, but that the text has not endured in Iran in the same way as in the UK and US.

For our first workshop, we watched part of the made-for-TV 1978 film adaptation of Roll of Thunder, discussing its strengths and weaknesses. Conclusion: it’s time for a new adaptation! If there are any filmmakers out there, we’re available for consultation…

Throughout the day, discussion often came back round to the present day political situation in America, and the continuing need for more nuanced, positive and authentic representations of African American people.  Breanna McDaniel joined us via Skype from Atlanta, Georgia, for the final session to reflect on her experience of reading Taylor’s work as a child, the importance of Taylor’s work in filling historical gaps between slavery and the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing legacy of the work in the context of continuing challenges in the US today. Breanna also talked about a new picturebook she is working on, which aims to rework current discourses on African American childhood in an incredibly powerful way… watch this space!

Lucy Doddrell and Olivia Marsh, both trainee teachers, reviewed Day 2 of the symposium for the Cambridge English PGCE blog and have kindly allowed me to include their report here too:

“To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear MyCry, the Faculty of Education hosted a two-day symposium on 23rd and 24th September attended by scholars from around the world.

On Saturday afternoon we had the pleasure of participating in a teaching workshop led by Jen Aggleton, ‘Judging a book by its cover: using cover art in the classroom to stimulate critical and creative responses to texts’. Each pair was given a different version of the cover for Roll of Thunder from different countries and periods of time. We discussed characters, themes and events as depicted on our covers. A transferable technique for any book studied in the classroom, we are already beginning to incorporate it in lesson plans! English Language skills also feature as pupils analyse how the publishers want people to respond—Mildred Taylor’s work is literally covered in awards. If used before the book is read in class, pupils can make predictions about possible narrative points and themes. After the class has worked through the book, cover art allows for comparison of interpretations of characters and events—both the publishers’ interpretations and the pupils’. This is a great way of encouraging pupils to consider the different perspectives that one text can generate. Pupils could even transform their own interpretations into cover art.

Jen’s afternoon workshop
Sarah Hardstaff’s talk on education in Roll of Thunder provoked a fascinating discussion on the political implications of sociolect in novels—what is the impact of the distinctive grammar of the black characters’ speech? And whose voices do we hear in our own classrooms? She revealed some uncomfortable disjunctions between the novel’s own prominent educational ideology and some of the textbooks used to accompany its study in schools. Her talk particularly resonates in the context of recent changes to the English Literature GCSE curriculum, which now only includes British authors of prose and plays post-1914. It is important that students are aware of and critically engage with other cultures. English has always been, and continues to be, a deeply politicised subject.

However, Gabrielle Cliff Hodges’ keynote address reminded us of the importance of not forgetting that such rich narratives of social justice are also literature. We often lose the literary value of such texts in favour of a sociological perspective — think back to English lessons on To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men. Any teaching of these and similar books needs to maintain the balance between social justice issues and literary response to the authors’ art.

Gabrielle suggested accompanying this text with short stories such as Alice Walker’s ‘The Flowers’ or songs like Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ as a means to access the text initially, or to further understanding and build context.

It was fascinating to explore the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre pop-up shop to find current texts relevant to this book, such as Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. (It transpired to be an expensive afternoon of book purchasing: Lucy could not resist The Lure of the Honeybird: The Storytellers of Ethiopia and Olivia bought The Black Book of Colour, a book designed for those who cannot see in colour and which includes braille.)

October is Black History Month and Roll of Thunder reminds us of some of the challenges faced in predominantly white-European classrooms. How do we teach black history in a white dominated environment? How do we teach social justice in an unjust system? Everything that we teach in the classroom, that is included in a story or put on the cover of a book is done so for a reason.  As Mildred Taylor makes clear, it is important to never stop questioning why.”

 All photos copyrighted Siddharth Pandey

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