It is the first day of school, and Cassie Logan is feeling grumpy. She dislikes the uncomfortable Sunday clothes her mother is making her wear, and she hates the thought of spending a beautiful October day indoors. Cassie grumbles at her youngest brother, six-year-old Little Man, because he walks slowly to keep his clothes neat. She comes close to fighting with her older brother, twelve-year-old Stacey, who is in a sour mood because he knows his mother will be his teacher this year. Cassie’s middle brother, seven-year-old Christopher John, remains silent but seems nervous as he listens to his siblings’ arguments.
As the children walk to school, Cassie thinks about her father and her family’s farm. The Logans grow cotton, but they cannot earn enough from their crop to pay their mortgage. Because of this, Cassie’s father is away working on the railroad to earn more money. Cassie misses her father and does not understand why the adults in her family are willing to split up just to keep their land.
On the road, the Logan kids meet up with their friends T.J. and Claude Avery. T.J. brags that he knows more than the Logan kids do, then he relates a story about a sickening incident the night before. A group of Black men were badly burned because White men lit them on fire.
The children’s conversation is interrupted by the White school bus. The White driver likes to speed up and splash mud on Black kids. The Averys, Cassie, and the two older Logan boys jump out of the way in time. Little Man, who has never been to school before and does not know what to expect, gets covered in mud.
Little Man is still dripping when the kids meet Jeremy, a White boy who likes them and wants to be friends. Cassie thinks it is strange that Jeremy walks with them even though the other White kids beat him up for spending time with Black kids. The kids act awkward and uncomfortable until Jeremy leaves them to go into the White school building.
The Logans walk on to the rundown Black school. Most of their fellow students, whose families do not own land, are even poorer than the Logans. When the students in Cassie’s classroom learn that they will have books this year, everyone gasps in surprise. Most of the students have never held a book except for the Bible. Cassie is as excited as the rest of her classmates until she sees that the books are worn and tattered.
When Little Man receives his book, he sees how dirty it is and asks the teacher for a cleaner one. The teacher yells at him for being ungrateful and snobbish. Little Man takes the battered book back to his desk and peeks inside the front cover. Suddenly he throws the book on the ground and stomps on it.
When Cassie looks inside her own book, she understands why Little Man is so angry. Inside the front cover she finds a chart recording the condition of the book and the race of the children using it. The book was used at a White school until its condition became very poor; only then was it given to Cassie’s “nigra” school.
Cassie tries to explain why Little Man stomped on his book but the teacher only gets angrier. When Cassie refuses to use her book, the teacher whips her and Little Man for their disobedience.
After school, Cassie runs to tell her mama what happened, but her teacher is already there. To Cassie’s relief, her mama is on her side. She is in the process of covering the charts in her own class’s books so the children will not see them. Cassie’s teacher says that Mrs. Logan is vandalizing county property and that kids need “to learn how things are sometime.” Mama agrees but says that neither children nor adults need to accept racism.