Words by Heart by Ouida Sebestyen
Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House
Lena is determined that she is going to win the school’s Bible verse recitation. As the only African American student in the school, a member of the only non-white family in town, she knows that, as much as most members of the town are not hostile towards her and her family, they only see her skin color and not her mind. Getting what you wish for is not always a good thing, though. Between Lena’s success over the white male student who everyone thought was a shoe-in and her father rising in the estimation of his employer, racial tensions begin to surface in their small town. Now, Lena must decide whether she believes in vengeance or forgiveness.
Words by Heart is a great look at faith and racism for young readers. Sebestyen walks a line very well of not shying away from the realities of hatred and the negative consequences, without writing a book too overwhelming for middle grade readers. Largely this is done by the strong message of faith and forgiveness. Lena’s father, in particular, is a proponent of forgiveness and attempts to teach her to forgive as he tries to do.
This is the sort of book I wish I had found when I was younger. While I could definitely appreciate both the story and the message, I know it would have meant quite a bit more to me if I had approached it as a pre-teen. I’m glad I read it, though, if for no other reason than that now I know about it to read with my own children when they are at an age to learn about the horrors of hatred and freedom of forgiveness.
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