Although the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry deals with difficult details of segregation and racial prejudice, it is designed for middle grades students to read.
This novel seeks to introduce younger students to difficult concepts. Before they read a more complex and detailed description of the realities of racism, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, this book introduces them a little more gently to concepts of racism, discrimination, and poverty.
The book addresses important historical concepts likes sharecropping and segregation. There are roving bands of white bandits that target innocent black men. There are also more minor, daily examples of institutionalized racism, such as the used textbooks given to the "negro" school once they are no longer useable for whites, and the whites-only bus deliberately splashing the Logans as they walk to school.
In an age-appropriate manner, this book allows children to learn about and discuss such issues. The protagonist of the book is a middle-grades girl, most of the characters are children, and the events of the book describe the children’s experiences. This is a perfect way for teachers to open up discussions, such as asking kids how they would feel in the protagonist's situation. For example, Cassie refuses to move off a sidewalk for a white girl and is pushed aside by the girl’s father.
I did not feel like messing with Lillian Jean. I had other things on my mind. “Okay,” I said, starting past, “I’m sorry.”
Lillian Jean sidestepped in front of me. “That ain’t enough. Get down in the road.” (Ch. 5)
Cassie is upset at her grandmother for not intervening, but she realizes later that she was only trying to protect Cassie from further harassment by the white family. In those days, it was acceptable for a black girl to be waited on last in a store, and to be expected to move out of the way for a white girl.
Although the book is designed for children, it does not pull any punches. There is serious violence, and the N-word is used. Everything is in historical context, but it should be preceded by a discussion and appropriate background so that kids understand and appreciate what they are reading. Middle grades students should not really read the book without discussion of some sort, because they could possibly be frightened, confused, or angered by what they read.
A discussion of the historical realities of the period, and the events leading up to them, is crucial. For example, you should explain how slavery influenced sharecropping, and why it was so rare for the Logans to own land. Background on Jim Crow laws and segregation would also be useful, especially with regard to schools. Finally, a reading of this book should also include background on the Great Depression in general, and then the Civil Rights movement.