A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Realistic and poetic description paints a vivid picture of the setting: the deep South during the Depression. The story explores the humiliating injustice of racism and the resulting poverty and hardship of that place and time. The boy learns that, though life can be harsh, it is also hopeful, and that stories, reading, and education help a person survive.
The sharecropping family is poor but honest, loving, kind, unselfish, and hardworking. The father is not proud that, in a desperate attempt to feed his family, he has stolen a pig. The mother is long-suffering and patient, and she even returns the parts of the uneaten pig when she realizes it was stolen. The boy does his work first, sees to his family, then seeks his father and Sounder. The best time of his life is when he listens to his mother's stories, finds a book, and gets the opportunity to learn to read. The outside world, the arresting men, and jailers especially, are part of a scary, dark, racist world. They are ugly and mean and, except for the drunkard and the teacher, never show a bit of sympathy or compassion.
Positive Role Models
Patience, inner strength, honesty, and education help the boy and his family remain hopeful and resilient, and that is why they survive as well as they do. The father, mother, and the boy work hard, show courage, and have a quiet dignity in the face of their very difficult life. When the father is taken away, the boy steps up. Not only does he work harder to help hold the family together, but he goes out year after year on journeys around the countryside trying to find his dad ... and Sounder. When the teacher offers to teach him to read, he begins to find a small crack through which he eventually escapes the dismal future of a sharecropper's life.
Violence & Scariness
The life of the sharecropper in a racist world seems cold, lonely, and always on the verge of violence: The weather is harsh, people are mean. The real violence comes when the boy's father is dragged out of the house, beaten, and hauled away to jail in the dark of night. That same night Sounder is shot and left for dead in the middle of the road. The mangled body is described graphically, as is the death of a bull. The guards smash a gift the boy delivers to his dad in jail, men are beaten on the chain gang, one guard smashes the boy's hand with a piece of thrown iron, a dynamite explosion kills some of the inmates, the father is permanently injured. At one point the boy feels a "helpless hatred" and wants to chain the jailer behind a wagon and drag him down the frozen road. But despite the fact that the story contains death, violence, and sorrow, it does have an important and uplifting message.
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One of the arresting officers refers to the father as a "thievin' ["N" word]" and calls him "boy." Otherwise their language is mean and threatening. Reference is made to swearing in several instances though no swear words are written in the text. For example, we read that the red-faced jailer swears at the boy and scares him, causing the boy to feel a helpless hatred.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A drunkard is one of the only adults who greets the boy when he is in town.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this Newbery Award winner is not a heartwarming dog story, as the title and cover may indicate. Rather, it is the story of a boy's struggle to find his father, his dog, and his own identity in a racist world that is harsh, lonely, and violent at times. Written in the late '60s, some of the characterizations seem stereotypical, but the language is simple and strong -- almost poetic -- and the story is good. Several editions of the book have been reprinted, and it was made into a well-received 1972 movie starring Cicely Tyson and an updated 2003 Disney movie starring Paul Winfield.
Is It Any Good?
SOUNDER is a remarkable, moving story. It captures the ugliness of racism and poverty as well as the desperation and necessary strength of downtrodden people, in this case an African-American sharecropping family in the rural South. By presenting the story from the emotional viewpoint of the boy, the author makes the reader feel his loneliness and fear, as well as his amazing determination and courage. Terrible things happen, as they often do in an unjust, prejudiced world, but a hopeful optimism presides. Not only is the story moving and tender, but the language that tells it is also realistically detailed, with multiple layers of symbolism that are uncomplicated but powerful.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.