Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist #12: This Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

Introduced by Molly Sloan

We know about the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education as a turning point in American History and in the American system of education.  But many of us think of that decision in the context of a history book, pages yellowed with age or a legal precedent echoing through the halls of our justice system.  Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy juxtaposed the institutional weight of that decision with the sandwiches packed for lunch, the skirts crisply pressed, and the Ed Sullivan Show playing on Sunday nights.  This Promise of Change is a memoir in verse that paints a picture of what it felt like to be one of the Clinton 12 who integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee in 1956, two years after Brown v Board. 

Boyce tells her own story through a variety of poetic forms.  Much of the narrative is told through free verse, but acrostics, ballads, cinquains, haiku, sonnets, villanelles, even a pantoum become part of the tapestry of this tale.  Boyce and Levy make memory into art through the lines of their poetry.  Here’s one thread of the tapestry: 

As I get ready the night before

Laying out what I will wear,

I’m thinking of first impressions–opening, closing the drawer.

Grandmother made me clothes I adore.

I make sure they are pressed.  Will anyone notice? I wonder

As I get ready the night before.

A fresh new headband bought at the store

To match my blouse and skirt.

I’m thinking of first impressions–opening, closing the drawer.

Dad sharpens my pencils, then sharpens them more

With his knife as he does every year. This at least can remain the same

As I get ready the night before.

Almost ready.  There’s one last chore:

Make a sandwich.  I’ll pack it for lunch.

I’m thinking of first impressions–opening, closing the drawer.

And then at church, there’s a prayer for peace,

But it sounds like we are going to war.

As I get ready the night before

I’m thinking of first impressions–

Please open, don’t close that door.  (p.66-67)

The authors convey to today’s readers how it felt like to live in a segregated town; how it felt to go into a variety store and be called a “little nigger baby;” how it felt to have to wait until the white customers left an aisle in the grocery store before entering that aisle herself; how it felt to watch movies from the “buzzard’s nest” balcony at the theater; how it felt to live across the street from a white family, the Smiths, that shared home-fried potatoes and borrowed cups of sugar, but who also joined the mob against the integration of the high school. Brown v. Board was the legal decision we read about in those history books, but This Promise of Change shows us what it meant.  Separate was never equal.  These twelve Tennessee teens created change: they were stubborn, full of grit, and somehow, at the age of fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, imagined a better vision for our country.  

When I see the hatred

When I hear the scorn

Of a town possessed

With its decency torn.

They would have me bend 

But I stand up tall

I’ve got words inside

They can’t make me crawl.

Don’t pay attention 

my parents say.

You’ll be somebody–

You will, someday.

If you show your fear,

Then they will have won.

You are as good 

as anyone.

The most powerful message I took away from reading this memoir was that laws and courts can order change, but it is people with hands and feet that make change happen.  Boyce and Levy have given us an honest, difficult and ultimately compelling story of young people who took courageous action to make necessary, change.  

Annisha Jeffries About Annisha Jeffries

Annisha Jeffries is the head of the youth services department at Cleveland Public Library. She was a member of the 2007 ALSC Board and served on several selection committees, including the 2018 Caldecott Committee. A 2000-2001 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, Jeffries is currently the Chair of the Norman A, Sugarman Children's Biography Award.
She can be reached at


  1. Mary Zdrojewski says

    I thought the authors did a very good job with the pacing of this book. It’s difficult to take real historical moments like this and make the pacing both accurate to the events and engaging for young readers, but the authors kept the book moving well. I think the variety in types of verse, not just all free verse, was a good choice to help with that.

  2. samuel leopold says

    Molly is on point with her intro.
    I agree with Mary concerning the pacing.
    What I liked most about this book is how I have seen it inspire many students to be brave and have a voice. These 12 wonderful, dream-driven teens knew their vision was right and they were not going to allow anyone to quiet their voices no matter how insurmountable the odds seemed.
    This type of courage is contagious and so many of our young adults today want to have voices but are afraid of the consequences. This story persuades them to have faith instead of fear.
    The authors use melodic, beautiful poetry to let us feel the heartbeats of these 12 teens…..and with this powerful empathy, maybe some of our young learners can also change the world.
    I thank the authors for this book and the positive effects it is having.

    Wearing my Newbery glasses, I do not see a gold medal on the cover, but see enough distinguished qualities for silver.

  3. The poetry in this book is so distinguished; the idea that it is a potential honor book but not the winner is odd. Levy is an accomplished poet; the sophistication of verse forms alone in this book makes it really unusual. Perhaps there may be an issue because the book is a collaboration. Collaboration can mean many things. It does not necessarily mean that each person played the same role in creating the book. Jo Ann Allen Boyce lived through an ordeal with courage and vision. Levy is an experienced and gifted writer. They worked together to bring an unforgettable experience into the hands of readers.

  4. Rachel Wadham says

    Two things stand out for me with this book. First the memoir quality of the text is very evident since of course this is a very first person account of the story. I love that the poetic text brings out the raw real emotion that Jo Ann felt. Having her voice made the book so engaging. I also appreciated the documentary history nature of this text, with the use of direct quotes from the articles and papers as well as the commentary and pictures in the back. This is reminiscent to the works of Deborah Wiles (Countdown, Revolution, and Antheum) for me. I love the use of primary source documents in telling a story that is now history to young readers. It really brings the history alive and also lets the readers know this really happened, we are not making things up. In fact, my personal preference would have been to have this documentary part be more integrated into the story. I would have loved to see the newspaper quotes are part of the poems instead of at the end and the pictures put in place where they would be when the story was happening instead of at the end as well. I think this would have made the overall approach so much more impactful.

  5. I am disappointed so few “committee” members have commented on this book. To me, it excels in depiction of setting in terms of both time and place; appropriateness of style with the choice of poems to convey emotions related to events; theme, not only regarding an historic Civil Rights momemt but also the maturing/coming of age of a teen; and characterization in this memoir.

  6. As a Committee Member I have to say that some of the books I read I have to get my hands on again before I feel confident remarking and this is a book that I have not gotten my hands on again. What I remember most strongly from this book has to do with my reaction to poetry. Books in verse are hard for me because I am so used to evaluating one poem at a time in poetry units. Many books in verse I will like one poem and feel there are weaknesses in others. This was a group of poetry where the verse was consistently good. I did not find any particular poems that seemed weaker. I did think that the information was interesting and seemed to be accurate and clear.

  7. Tamara DePasquale says

    I’m not sure if it’s time to speak about potential problems, and I’m feeling uneasy about my response to This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality. I do not want my disappointment to be confused with a lack of reverence for the author or her story. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

    I thoroughly appreciated the information presented in This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality. It is such an important event in history, and we are so fortunate to have a firsthand account available for the middle grade audience. It was well organized, the information was accessible, and the writing was lyrical …but selfishly, I wanted more.

    For the reader to fully understand the historical significance of this event, it was necessary to feel the full range of emotions, the thoughts, and the personal sacrifices of the Clinton 12. I wanted to accompany Jo Ann Allen as she walked down that hill every day to school. I wanted to sit with her in that all white classroom. I wanted to feel her fear and her determination as she committed to attending Clinton High School in 1956, but I did not. I was an observer.

    Although I felt the poetry was well done, the format kept me distanced and safe. I’m not sure that the memoir in verse worked for me. Yes, there were moments that I paused and reread passages, but it was out of regard for the poetry, not for a break in the tension. True empathy comes from that profound, indescribable connection between the teller and the listener. I finished this one with more knowledge about the incident, but I never once internalized it. I felt that it was a missed opportunity, and that is, for me, what keeps it out of Newbery contention.

    • Rachel Wadham says

      I agree Tamara, there was a distance in this book that was concerning for me too. I personally would have like to see the documentary elements more integrated into the overall text, I think that would have added some of this depth. I also think that may have made up for a little bit of this distance.

    • Tamara, I absolutely agree. I went into the book so excited for the first-person point-of-view on such an important moment in time, but I felt like the poems were missing the personal connection. It also seemed to jump around with minimal introspection just when I wanted it – for example, the decision to integrate the school seemed to just come up more like a plot point than a decision she was actively involved in making. I wanted more set up of the Jo Ann before this point too.

      I also found the mix of poetry styles distracting, especially the more constrained formats. Many of the rhymes felt jarring after being in free verse, and the forced nature of the formats often drew me out of the book and distracted me from the story.

      It’s such an important story, but the book itself didn’t accomplish what I had hoped that it would for me as a reader.

    • Alissa Tudor says

      I think you summed up my feelings as well. I have waited to comment on this book because I just can’t quite put into words what I didn’t like. I think it is the “observer” aspect you mentioned. It is a wonderful book, but I was expecting more emotion and depth given the format. The verse format could have really provided what this book was missing since verse tends to lend itself so well to voicing that tension and expressing the emotions. I just think it sort of skimmed the surface and didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
      As Katie mentioned, the mix of the poetry styles felt odd. I didn’t like the forced rhymes thrown in with free verse. Some of the text just seemed out of place. I wish it would have been more consistent as I would have found it easier to read.

  8. Courtney Hague says

    I loved this book and I think its poetry is what Other Words For Home should be held up to. Even though this book mostly uses free verse it still feels more like poetry to me than Other Words for Home. This is a beautifully written memoir in verse and I think Molly does a great job of delineating the strengths in her introduction. The use of primary sources and the back matter really brings it all together, but I think the poetry does a great job of conveying the emotions of the moment.

  9. Obviously, people respond differently to different genres and styles. This is a work of literature. The author has chosen poetry for a reason. Can we no longer expect children to read poetry? She has not written a strict documentary account of civil rights activism. Other authors have chosen to use that approach. Distance? If verse forms, metaphor, and allusions are seen as some sort of obstacle to telling the truth, then there is no place for this type of book. In fact, Levy is allowing the reader to form a different, perhaps even more personal and intense, connection to Boyce’s experience. I would suggest that children, and adults, need to be able to immerse themselves in this kind of rich and subtle work.

  10. Amanda Bishop says

    I think that this was a very accessible memoir and historical account for young readers. Poetry lends itself so beautifully as a medium to tell stories such as these. I really got a feel for how it must have felt for the author to have experienced this painful, yet hopeful, time of her life.

    I agree with Molly, that this book shows how it is in the hands of people to assist with change, even though the courts have decided. I think it will be hard for young readers to understand why people weren’t following the laws that were handed down. This allows for a very teachable moment in which to discuss dissent and political discord.

    I thought the images and resources provided throughout the book to be a great help to paint a larger picture of this historical moment.

  11. I expected to respect and learn from this book; I ended up loving it as well. For me, the emotional impact of Jo Ann’s experiences was absolutely there, and the poetic forms added to that, rather than detracting.
    I admired the variety of poetic forms used and how well the poems were written, but they also felt to me like they fulfilled the purpose of songs in a musical – to express more feeling than could be expressed in prose.
    Not having the book with me anywhere, I can’t give a lot of specific examples other than to say it spoke to me and gave me a different view on the civil rights struggle in integrating schools. The two poems excerpted above in Molly’s post give one idea of the contrast I liked so much. The first poem has a more formal style, returning to the one line as though she is ruminating, and then ending with a variation of that line that makes it more of a worried plea. The second poem, with its short lines and more forceful rhythm, has a more heightened emotion as befits that particular part of the story.

  12. Melisa Bailey says

    I thought this was a beautifully written book. The presentation and accuracy were wonderful, the poetry reminds me of how people tweet now, short powerful statements that stick with you. I thought the characters felt distant, as if I was watching without climbing into her mind. This allowed a lot of introspection on the reader’s part but not an intimate relationship with the character. I could easily imagine the setting and picture her walking to school, the ackwardness of the lunch room, the author did a great job relaying these settings. Overall this is a strong contender for an award but the lack of connection to the main character is a mark against it.

    • I agree, Melisa, “Overall this is a strong contender for an award but the lack of connection to the main character is a mark against it.”

    • No, I don’t think it’s fair to say that your personal experience of not connecting to the main character is a mark against the book. What you describe is an emotional reaction. You haven’t given any reason why you could not “connect” to the character. This type of idiosyncratic response is inevitably part of reading, but if you make a statement about the book’s quality, it should be based on some analysis. Again, you don’t have to like the book, but you have stated that the book lacks a quality which would qualify it for the award.

  13. Leonard Kim says

    I think some history is cheapened by attempts to make readers imagine they were there. I have a lot of issues with books like Gratz’s Refugee, for example. Some history you aren’t supposed to imagine participating in, but to not forget it, to honor and respect it, to be grateful. I think THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE is that kind of book. If you google images of “Green McAdoo Cultural Center” and see those young people, the Clinton 12, memorialized in statues (very similar in appearance to the cover of this book), it’s hard for me to argue that the proper role of a book like this is to make a child imagine what it was like to be one of them — it will fail, they will fail — so it’s hard for me to ding a book like this for keeping a distance.

    And the thing is, it didn’t feel like distance to me. When I read it, I was plunged into its visceral power, its unified, clarion voice (impressive for a collaboration), its keen eye for making history come alive. The first three poems describing Clinton (My Town, Their Town, Our Town) credibly felt like they were the observations of Boyce and nowhere felt like an info dump, but still made the setting and characters and themes come alive in a way that something like NEW KID, even with its visuals and relatable character never attained for me, and yet written in language as subtle and strong as BEVERLY. I would almost liken the experience of reading this to reading something like “I Too Sing America” in a collection of Langston Hughes poetry — great writing, great poetry, a variety of forms, but a single, searing, I will not be ignored voice.

  14. Also great points, Leonard. Hmm… maybe I would need another reading to determine how I feel about the voice and whether its necessary for the book to make one imagine what it was like to be there.

  15. I hadn’t expected to like this book as much as I did. Told in verse with a documentary-novel feel, I thought the style would overpower the voice. Fortunately it didn’t and with its different styles of poetry, I think it added to the authenticity of the voice and gave an urgency to the story.

  16. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    We’re now closing comments on our HM discussions, as balloting by the HM Committee is underway. Look for new discussions in the January 23rd post as members re-discuss contending titles.