Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

Riot / by Walter Dean Myers


Title:  Riot
Author:  Walter Dean Myers
Publisher:  Egmont USA
ISBN:  978-1-60684-000-9
Year:  2009

Concepts: discrimination, jobs, wealth, economics of conflict

Review: Intent to increase the size of the Union Army, in 1963 President Abraham Lincoln signed the first conscription act in U.S. history, authorizing the draft of all able-bodied young men into the Army. With a loophole that allowed wealthier men to avoid being drafted by paying a $300 fee, the conscription act infuriated members of the working class. In New York City, large numbers of men and some women, predominantly Irish, took to the streets and channeled their anger into looting and violence. Their violence targeted not only the upper class, but also African Americans who the Irish resented for stealing scarce jobs through their willingness to work for lower wages. The riots, which resulted in widespread destruction and brutal attacks, required military intervention before ending after four terrifying days.

Caught in the middle of these very real events are a series of fictional characters struggling to come to terms with the charged racial relations. Claire, a biracial fifteen-year-old girl, braves the violence on the streets to help her black father save a group of young orphans from the mobs bent on destroying the New York Colored Orphan Asylum. In the process she joins her best friend Priscilla, who is black, in helping the children and also in trying to find Priscilla's frail old aunt. In taking these risky actions during the height of the violence rather than stay at home, Claire tries to define her racial identity and help the people she loves.

This novel brings to life the 1963 New York Draft Riots for readers who may be less familiar with the nature of the violence and the hostile race relations. The plot highlights the role of economic principles, especially competition for jobs and racial discrimination, in serving as key triggers of the riots. Middle-grade readers raised on texting and instant messaging are likely to appreciate the screenplay format with brief scene directions and fast-paced dialogue.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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