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Riot Review by Dawn OaksWalter Dean Myers
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 806
New York, NY 10016
The Civil War is a dramatic event in the history of our country. Riot is a moving work of historical fiction by Walter Dean Myers that shares a retelling of a little known aspect of our nation's story. The entire storyline covers the four days in July 1863 when the New York City draft riots occurred. Great civil unrest showed its head in the worst race riots ever experienced in our nation's history as struggling Irish immigrants protested being drafted to fight for the freedom of "darkies" in the Civil War. Bloody attacks, looting, arson, and murder were seen throughout the city.
The story is told as a personal narrative from a 15-year-old biracial girl, Claire. As the daughter of a black father and an Irish mother, Claire not only witnesses the tragic events unfolding outside her door but also faces an internal battle as she searches for her own identity in the two worlds that war against each other. Who is she? Where does she belong? In the end, whom will she be able to call "friend"? What will the community she calls home look like, and how will the people there receive her?
Riot is written in screenplay format. It contains a cast of characters, a timeline of the historical events that provide the setting of this piece of fiction, and author's notes in the closing of the book that provide additional insights. The text of the story occupies 154 pages.
The screenplay format of the book was somewhat challenging to get into at the beginning. I found myself flipping between the storyline and the cast of characters in order to keep everyone straight and to keep the dialogue in context. This became less necessary as the story progressed. By the end, I realized how little we read in this format and began considering the value of this exposure for my children.
Riot would be appropriate for middle school and high school students. Students in these age groups will readily relate to the narrative voice of a 15-year-old and will be challenged to realize that history affects people of all ages, not just soldiers and politicians.
Riot could be very powerfully used in a homeschool co-op, with the students taking on individual roles and reading the screenplay in character. Assignments could include research projects on this event, reflections on what it would have been like to live during this era, and the impact such events had on the cultural shaping of our country today. Riot would also be great supplemental reading material for any family completing a unit on the Civil War.