After being tied up by two older bullies and forced to miss his fourth-grade graduation, Gabriel King decides there's no way he's moving up to fifth grade. Fifth grade would mean being in a different wing of the school reserved for older kids, including the two bullies, and he wants no part of such daily torture. It's the summer of 1976 in Hollowell, Georgia, and the first person to hear of Gabe's decision is his best friend, Frita Wilson, the only black girl in his class. In The Liberation of Gabriel King, Frita comes up with a plan to help Gabe stop being chicken: the two of them will each make a list of all their fears and then spend the summer facing each fear, crossing them off one by one. They'll save Gabe's worst fears the worst bully, Duke Evans, and fifth grade for last, when Gabe is braver.
Gabriel is not at all sure about this strategy, but he agrees to try, dutifully listing each of his 38 fears, such as spiders, alligators, robbers, losing his parents or calling his teacher momma by accident. He's even afraid of Frita's teenage brother, Terrance, who spends much of his time in the basement hitting punching bags. Gabe and Frita are especially believable characters, and the novel moves quickly as fear after fear is tackled, with both humorous and frightening results. This is the second novel by K.L. Going, whose Fat Kid Rules the World won a multitude of awards. Her second novel is a wonderful follow-up, a compelling and humorous story of friendship and fear that will no doubt win more accolades. Going has created a gentle yet powerful picture of racism, along with a very real portrait of the summer of 1976, when the citizens of Georgia were excited by Jimmy Carter's run for the presidency. As he confronts his fears, Gabe also learns a lot about friendship and prejudice. He realizes, for instance, that Terrance isn't scary at all, and he also witnesses how cruel some people are to Frita. The Liberation of Gabriel King is a smashing read, both fun and informative, providing plenty of fodder for discussion. My guess is that it will quickly be included on school reading lists. Will Gabe ever make it to the fifth grade? Start reading and see.