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Intro, Summary & General Questions

Sylvia Patterson looks forward to high school for all the normal reasons-being treated more like an adult, learning more about the world, joining clubs, and enjoying football games and dances. But in her year, 1957, and her town, Little Rock, things are anything but normal. To comply with federal law, the school board has decided to integrate Central High School, whether the governor of Arkansas or the citizens of Little Rock like it or not.

Sylvia is shocked when her teacher, Miss Washington, asks her to consider being one of the first black students to attend Central. It is an honor reserved to very few, but it is also a heavy burden that Sylvia may not be able to carry. She would be separated from lifelong friends (including a new boyfriend), excluded from social activities at school, and worse, subjected to threats and, possibly, violence. Sylvia is torn between wanted to bring about change and wanting to remain safe and happy in the life she has always known.

Before Sylvia makes her final decision, smoldering racial tension in the town ignites into flame. When the smoke clears, she sees clearly that nothing is going to stop the change from coming. It is up to her generation to make it happen, in as many different ways as there are colors in the world.


1. What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel about the Little Rock Nine and school integration?

I was a little girl in 1957 and I watched the events in Little Rock unfold at home on our fuzzy little black and white television. Somehow the combination of horror at what I saw, and the courage of those nine students, who were just teenagers, stuck with me. They were just kids. I don't think I could have done what they did. I've collected 1957 memorabilia and music for years, and I was never really sure why I did so. All those Life and Look magazines came in really handy when it became clear I needed to write a story about those times.

Students today take so much for granted. They need to know about those who came before them and the sacrifices that were made. We cannot embrace our future without giving honor to our past. We must teach the children so they will always know and never forget.

2. The main character, Sylvia Patterson, a very normal, level-headed girl, despite the racism and violence surrounding her, is selected to be one of the few students to integrate into the school but decides not to. Why did you take the main character out of the integration into Central High School?

I have enormous respect and give all honor and appreciation to those nine students who actually underwent the indignities of those days. There is no way I would ever try to lessen their importance and impact on history by inserting a fictional character into their reality. They "own" that piece of history, and rightly so. Therefore, I never had any intention for the main character in the book, Sylvia, to actually be one of the Nine.

During that time in 1957, there were originally almost two hundred students from Little Rock who were considered to be the first to integrate Central High School. That list gradually diminished into the Nine. The stories of those other students, who are unnamed and unknown to history, gave me the background material for a fictional girl who is on the early list. But, like the real people who removed themselves (or were removed) from that list for dozens of possible reasons, Sylvia watches the events unfold from a distance.

3. How do you think children will react to a book about the once horrific situations surrounding race, integration and politics? Do you expect that they’ll find any similarities 50 years later?

To students who think the events of 1957 have no relevance to their lives, I point them to current injustices in Africa and Asia and South America. Because I approach most subjects through the experience of a teacher, I ask them to investigate the lives of teenagers and their schools in other parts of the world. I ask them to talk about the current pre-presidential politics and the involvement of politics in education. Closer to home, I'd ask them to talk about the racial division that still exists in school lunchrooms and Advanced Placement classes and testing, as well as fairness in punishments or praises give by adults in the educational system. We still have much to accomplish.

4. What did your research entail in creating the characters of Sylvia and Rachel? Were they based on fact or fiction?

Both characters are completely fictional. But all fiction is based on some kind of reality. I grew up in a small, close-knit church, and went to a public school with teenagers like Sylvia's friends in the book. My school was integrated, but separated by culture and race--not officially, but socially. My best friend until the third grade was a Jewish girl. She's not Rachel, of course, but I learned so much about the Jewish culture from my friend. Her family eventually moved away to a neighborhood where her family felt more comfortable, and our neighborhood gradually changed from one that was integrated with Italian and Jewish and African-American families, to one of mostly African-Americans who proudly took meticulous care of their first new homes. Great fiction comes from powerful realities.

5. The depiction of Reggie and Gary, and their rightful anger of the injustices they lived and witnessed, was well portrayed. Was Reggie based on a real character? If not, why did you make him responsible for burning down the Zucker’s store?

Again, both characters are completely fictional. I think I chose Reggie to be the perpetrator because he was the character that the reader would least suspect to be the villain. The social reality of the time would of course make the reader suspect the Smith Brothers, but that would be too predictable and does not make for good writing.

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Reviews & Awards

July, 2007

Using the events that surrounded the black teens, now known as the Little Rock Nine, who were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Draper offers an emotional tale about integrity, justice, and determination. A model student and citizen, rising freshman Sylvia Patterson has been chosen to join an elite group of students who will be the first to attend all-white Central High School. Intolerant of racism towards blacks and Jews (her best friend is Jewish), Sylvia knows that it is time to stand up against injustice. But what path should she take? The militant one her brother Gary has chosen? The passive-aggressive one her father has perfected? Or the religious, just leave it to Jesus one, favored by her mother? To make matters more complicated, there is her first love to think about. Can she leave him at the all-black high school while she goes to Central?

An expert at combining several genres to tell a compelling story, Draper reveals Sylvia's innermost thoughts and feelings in diary entries and poetry. Draper skillfully portrays the attitude and climate of late 1950s Arkansas and of the US in general. YA readers might be surprise by the mixed reactions of blacks, some for and some against integration, and the cruelty of the citizens, including the governor, of Arkansas. Figures like Daisy Bates, Elizabeth Eckford, and President Eisenhower will be familiar to history buffs. An informative author's note summarizes the experiences of the Little rock Nine and suggests further reading. Draper fans will not be disappointed by her second historical fiction book, following the award-winning Copper Sun.
- KaaVonia Hinton, PHD

August, 2007

Life is normal for Sylvia in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is the average eighth grade girl; curious about life, interested in boys, and trying to define herself as a teen. Sylvia has friends, family, and even a budding romance. But things are about to change. The mere whisper of the word integration threatens to ignite the powder keg that is Little Rock.

The year is 1757, and there is talk of integrating Little Rock Central High School. Being one of the first black students to walk those halls seems like an honor to Sylvia. She imagines a whole different world of shiny, new lockers and a library stocked with thousands of titles that she has not read. But the rose-colored lenses through which she had been looking begin to come clearer when she discovers the danger that lies ahead of the black students who plan to attend Central. The hostility in the town that quietly simmered reaches a boiling point when violence touches Sylvia's family. Should it be handled with the nonviolent approach that her parents have embraced, or it is time for something more aggressive, as her brother Gary suggests? As the violence escalates, the question becomes whether Sylvia will even live to see the first day of school at Central.

This historical fiction novel is a must-have. It keeps the reader engaged with vivid depictions of a time that most young people can only imagine. This title is an essential purchase for any library that serves young people.-- Robbie L. Flowers

July, 2007

Sylvia is completing her last year of middle school, and she's excited about going to the local high school with all her friends. But this is not a typical coming-of-age tale because the setting is Little Rock, Ark. in 1957, and there are important decisions to be made that will affect not only Sylvia but all African-Americans. Central High School is to be integrated and Sylvia has been selected as a candidate to enroll. If she attends her segregated school, she's guaranteed a good education as well as an abundance of activities and an assured social life. If she goes to Central, she will be prohibited from participating in clubs, sports and all social events, and will definitely be subjected to threats and danger to herself and her family. In the end, she chooses the option that is right for her. Draper evokes the escalating tensions and violence of that seminal summer, giving them a sense of immediacy via a strong central character. Compelling.

  • Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People for 2008 by the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies
  • Committee 2008 New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age
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Study Guides

Discussion Guide

About the Book
The year is 1957, and the city is Little Rock, Arkansas. Central High School is about to be integrated. Sylvia is fifteen, and she is asked to be on the list of students who will make history. But it means leaving her friends, her new boyfriend, and giving up all social activities. Should she remain safe and happy? Or dare to make a difference that might even threaten her life? What would you do?

Discussion Topics
  1. Fire from the Rock is a work of historical fiction, even though the year 1957 was not really very long ago. How does the blending of recent history and fiction make for a successful story and an easy way to learn about events in the past?

  2. Which elements of the story are purely fictional? Which elements are basically historical? How does this method of telling the story affect the reader's response?

  3. The first chapter introduces fifteen-year-old Sylvia, her eight-year-old sister, and the rest of her family. Tragedies seem to either bring families together or tear them apart. What predictions can the reader make about this family?

  4. Why didn't the family call the police after Donna Jean's attack? What would you have done in that situation?

  5. As you first meet Sylvia, even though she lives in 1957, how is she like many fifteen-year-old girls today? How is she different?

  6. Describe the relationship between Sylvia and her parents, Give specific examples from the book to show the conflicts as well as the closeness.

  7. Describe the relationship between Sylvia and her sister. Give specific examples from the book to show the conflicts as well as the closeness between them.

  8. Describe the relationship between Sylvia and her brother. Give specific examples from the book to show the conflicts as well as the closeness between them.

  9. What strengths do you find in Sylvia's family and home life? What negatives do you observe? Give specific examples.

  10. How do Sylvia's diary entries add to the narrative? What do you learn about her through these entries?

  11. Discuss the relationship between Sylvia and Rachel. What do your learn about each culture from their friendship? What strengths do they give each other? What social problems does their friendship face?

  12. Rachel gets to go to Central High School with no problem, but she and her family also suffer discrimination. Describe the Zucker family and their family difficulties as well as strengths. What makes them unusual?

  13. Discuss the relationship between Sylvia and Reggie. How is their relationship similar to teens today? How is it different? What predictions can you make about their future together?

  14. Describe the school that Sylvia attends. How is it different from yours? How is it similar? What advantages does a segregated school have? What disadvantages?

  15. Sylvia's teacher seems to have her best interests at heart. Describe her relationship with Miss Washington. How will Miss Washington forever affect Sylvia's life?

  16. What do you think the family should do about the situation with Gary and the boys who beat him up? How does each family member respond to the crisis?

  17. Why do you think Sylvia was chosen to be on the list of students to integrate Central High School? Why wasn't Gary chosen? How do you predict that choice will affect the relationship between the brother and the sister?

  18. How is the church an important factor in the lives of Sylvia and others like her? What strengths can be found in religious beliefs?

  19. Why are some members of the black community opposed to integration? Cite specifics from the book.

  20. From the descriptions in the book, what comments can you make about every day life in 1957? Discuss the price of goods and services, as well as family life.

  21. Make a list of all of Mrs. Patterson's proverbs and wise sayings and then tell what you think each one means. Why do you think Sylvia's mother resorts to these statements?

  22. Why is making the decision to go to Central such a difficult one for Sylvia? Why does her relationship with Reggie make the situation more confusing? Give specific examples.

  23. What are your reactions to the Sylvia's interview with the school board? How would you have handled that situation?

  24. Discuss the scene in which Sylvia and DJ are assaulted by the three boys. What does the reaction of the boy named Jim show about society?

  25. Describe the last day of school at Dunbar. How does it compare with the last day for graduates at your school? How is it similar? How is it different?

  26. Discuss the attack on the store. Describe how you think Sylvia felt? How would you have reacted in that situation?

  27. Do you think Sylvia made the correct decision concerning Reggie? What would you have done in the same situation?

  28. Do you think Sylvia made the correct decision concerning being one of the students to integrate Central? What would you have done in the same situation?

  29. How do you think Sylvia felt as she watched the events unfold as the nine students attempted to enroll at the school?

  30. Explain the title of the novel. Why does the title have more than one possible interpretation? Find several examples of reference to "fire" and "rock" within the story.

Activities and Research
1. You are a reporter at one of the following scenes. Write the story for your newspaper.
  • The destruction of Zucker's and Miss Lillie's store
  • Reggie's attack by the three boys
  • Donna Jean's attack by the dog
  • A day at Central High School
    • For a white student
    • For a black student

2. Trace the story of one of the following characters. Imagine you are a reporter doing a story on one of their lives. Write everything you know, as well as whatever you can infer about the character in order to write your magazine article. Include how these people might influence Sylvia and her decisions.
  • Rachel Zucker
  • Candy Castle
  • Donna Jean Patterson
  • Ethel Washington
  • Lou Ann Johnson
  • Johnny Crandall
  • Calvin Cobbs
  • Miss Lillie Cobbs

3. Write a letter to one of the characters in the book explaining your feelings about the events in the story. What advice would you give Sylvia, or Reggie, or Rachel, or Gary? What would you say to the Crandalls?

4. Imagine it is one year after the end of the novel. Create a conversation between the following characters:
  • Sylvia to Reggie
  • Sylvia to Gary
  • Gary to Johnny Crandall
  • Sylvia to Rachel
  • Mrs. Zucker to Mrs. Patterson

5. The novel goes deeply into popular culture of the time. Investigate any of the following and compare to today.
  • Music of 1957
  • Musicians of 1957
  • Television shows of 1957
  • Costs of products in 1957
  • Magazine ads in 1957
  • Miss America of 1957
  • American Bandstand, which began in 1957

6. The novel discusses several important social developments of the time. Investigate any of the following.
  • The establishment of the country of Ghana
  • The Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama
  • The early years of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The lynching of Emmett Till
  • "Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas," (1954)
  • Thurgood Marshall

7. Make sure you know not just the dictionary definition, but the significance and importance of the following terms:
  • boycott
  • discrimination
  • segregation
  • integration
  • intolerance
  • tolerance
  • prejudice
  • persecution
  • bigotry
  • resistance
  • courage
  • non violence
  • anti Semitism
  • swastika

8. Investigate any of the following real people who are mentioned in the novel. Find out what they were doing in 1957, and if still alive, what they are doing now.
  • Ralph Bunche
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Fats Domino
  • Chuck Berry
  • Little Richard
  • Pat Boone
  • Elvis Presley
  • Harry Belafonte
  • Daisy Bates
  • Rosa Parks
  • Marian Anderson
  • Orval Faubus
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Miss America of 1957
  • Ernest Green
  • Elizabeth Eckford
  • Jefferson Thomas
  • Terrence Roberts
  • Carlotta Walls
  • Minnijean Brown
  • Gloria Ray
  • Thelma Mothershed
  • Melba Patillo

Writing Activities

"It was clear Elizabeth was frustrated--she tried several times to get past the guards. The last time she tried, they pointed their bayonets at her.

"They're pointing guns at her! Are they going to shoot a teenager on live television?"

"Oh, my Lord," Aunt Bessie mumbled, her eyes fixed on the television screen.

Sylvia grabbed her aunt's hand. "If that was me, I'd be so scared I'd be wetting my pants? I know she's terrified!"

Elizabeth turned then, glanced around to see what she should do, or to look for help perhaps, and all that stood in front of her was a sea of angry white faces. She walked slowly down the steps, and as she got closer to what was now a mob, they grew fierce.

Sylvia started to cry as she watched. "Oh, Aunt Bessie, a lady is spitting on her."

"She's all alone," Aunt Bessie moaned.

"They're calling her names! How can grownups do that to a kid?" Tears streamed down Sylvia's face.

Elizabeth walked slowly and silently. It was unbelievable.

Read the passage above and explain how the point of view of the character who makes the observation influences the description. How would Elizabeth have written this passage? How would a person in the mob have written this passage?

" The explosions that surrounded her the next moment caused her to drop the eggs in her hand as she was tossed to the floor. Her head connected with the floorboards before the rest of her body. A shelf full of groceries fell over onto Sylvia. As if she were outside of herself watching the horrible scene, she knew she was screaming, knew she was falling, knew this must be what it felt like to die.

The noise of the falling shelves and dry goods frightened her more than the feeling of crumpled wood on her legs. Most of it fell around her rather than upon her. Even so, sheer terror overwhelmed her. Her screams became clogged as debris filled her mouth, and she was finding it hard to breathe.

Stunned for a moment, Sylvia at first could see nothing. Gradually she dimly became aware of eggshells and gooey egg yolk in her hair and on her clothes. Something wet and drippy snaked down her back. Her mouth was full of a thick and powdery substance. She couldn't move her legs. Her head throbbed. Rachel seemed to have disappeared. . . . Sylvia sat up carefully and tried to catch her breath, but she coughed once more as a sharp, acrid odor filled the small room. The smell reminded her of the barbecues her father prepared on holidays--how her mother always fussed at him because he used too much kerosene to start the fire. Fire. It was then the odor of burning wood and oil assaulted her. Oh, my God! The store's on fire!"

Using the passage above as a guide, write a descriptive paper that uses sensory imagery. Use vivid verbs and powerful adjectives and adverbs as you write. Use as many of the senses as you can--sight, sound, smell, touch, taste--as well as deep, rich colors.

" Knocking down fire barriers and jumping over hoses, Calvin arrived with a clatter on his bicycle. "Where's my mother?" he shouted over the noise of the fire trucks and hoses. "Sylvie? Are you okay? Have you seen my mother?"

"I don't know, Calvin. Everything happened so fast." Sylvia looked distraught as Calvin ran toward the burning buildings.

"You can't go in there, son!" an officer yelled at Calvin, chasing him. "It's totally engulfed!"

Calvin ignored him and kept on running. The officer caught him and tackled him to the ground. Calvin squirmed and fought, but the policeman was stronger. "I gotta find her! I gotta find my mother!"

"If she's in there, you can't help her, son," the policeman said gently.

Finally, what was left of the two buildings, with a great whoosh, crumbled in on themselves. The crowd stepped back in awe at the horror of it all. Sparks and flames flew into the sky, along with thick, black smoke. Calvin wept."

Write a narrative paper from the point of view of someone whose friend or family member is in a dangerous situation. Tell the story as the person tries to grasp the enormity and horror of what is happening.

"Sylvia thought about the women she'd seen in those magazine ads--all of them housewives, not professionals. "Absolutely," she said. "I want to do more than what I see women doing on television, Rachel," Sylvia admitted. "I Love Lucy is a great show, but all she does is stay home, clean house, and get in trouble with Ricky! Besides, who's gonna take seriously a lady who's wearing a lace apron and holding a mixing spoon in her hand?"

Both girls laughed. "That's why Lucy is so popular! You and I think alike, Sylvia Faye. Do you think there will ever be a television program with a policewoman or lady detective or lady doctor as the main character?"

"Only if she's funny and acts silly," Sylvia replied, as she helped Rachel sort the goods for the shelves."

Write an expository (explanatory) paper on the role of women in television and magazine commercials. Discuss how those roles and images have changed since 1957,

"I just got finished looking at myself closely--at least as much of me as I can see in our tiny bathroom mirror.

The mirror is a little warped, but it showed me a brown-skinned girl with puffy black hair, a nose that's too large for her face, and full, possibly kissable lips, assuming I could find somebody who wanted to kiss them. Reggie's lips would be a nice starting point!

I have ridiculously bushy eyebrows and short, stubby eyelashes. OK, I'll never be a movie star. My skin is too oily, so my face always looks shiny--I hate that--and I have tiny little pimples that dot my forehead and cheeks. Goodness! I'll never get married at this rate!

Looking at myself on the inside is even harder I'm not talking about hearts and lungs and stuff like that, but whether I'm brave like Miss Washington said, or noble, or admirable, or any of those adjectives they only use at somebody's funeral. I know I'm just as intelligent as any white student, and just as worthy of a good education as anybody else in this country. Why should the color of my skin make a difference? I don't get it."

Write a self-descriptive personal essay. Focusing on the positive, include your interior as well as exterior assets.

"When I take Tiny Tears out and hold her in my arms, the smell of her, almost like baby powder, still makes me smile. Her eyes really blink in her sculpted face. When you squeeze the doll's tummy, she coos. That sound, the feel of her soft, rubber body, even her slightly-scratched, painted-on hair take me back to a time of safety and happiness and real joy. I still love that doll and she is the most beautiful thing I own. And she's a little white baby. They don't make Negro dolls."

Write a personal essay that describes a special memory or object in your life. Explain why it is meaningful to you. Be sure to include sensory imagery--sights, smells, touches, tastes, sounds.

"I think I finally understand Gary's anger and hatred and his need to DO! It's a good thing I like to write--it's my way of letting out all that stuff without screaming. I want to hit something, hurt something! I want to break a window or smash in some ugly, yellow teeth! I want to cry.

I can still smell their rotten breath, see the hatred in their little bitty eyes, feel their hands on us. And how dare Johnny touch my baby sister! She's too young to have to live like this. She's supposed to worry about stupid little-kid stuff like playing with her dolls and tea cups, not about unwashed teen-aged bigots knocking her around on the sidewalk. This is going to mess her up for a long time--maybe for the rest of her life. Memories like that don't go away.

I know I'm not going to forget. Ever.

Is this what it will be like every day at Central High? Walking down the halls with people who hate you just because your skin is darker than theirs? Maybe I'm not the hero Miss Lillie says I am. Maybe this is not the path I'm supposed to walk. So many folks are depending on me, putting me up on a pedestal I never asked to be on. It was never my idea to do this anyway--it was Gary who wanted to be in the front of the fight. I hate fighting. Does that make me a coward?"

Write a persuasive paper that argues ONE of the following points:
  • "Individuals who are full of hate and bigotry are the source of much unhappiness in the world.
  • "All human beings are given strong spirits in order to withstand the difficulties of life."
  • "Individuals who suffer discrimination become stronger and can help others as a result. OR "Individuals who suffer discrimination become weaker and can be destroyed as a result.
Whether you agree or disagree, your paper should address only one side of the issue. Use specifics from the novel to support your points.

"Miss Ethel Washington, their English and Social Studies teacher, who was a stern, unsmiling woman with large hips and a tiny waist, got the class quiet and serious with a glance. She was tall and plump, and from what Sylvia could tell, probably close to sixty years old. She had taught many of their parents and a few of their grandparents as well.

Her black hair, streaked with lots of gray, was pulled back tightly into a bun on her neck. She wore large brown glasses, which fell to the tip of her nose when she asked a question in class, and sturdy brown shoes that were never seen untied. Her dresses, made of stiff fabric in various shades of black or gray or brown, never seemed to wrinkle. Sylvia had never seen Miss Washington wear a brightly colored or a flowered dress. She figured a painted rose or a daisy just might wilt, like one of Miss Lillie's leftover buds, if it had to lie that close to the body of Miss Ethel Washington!"

Write a character sketch of a strong powerful person that you know or have met. Use strong verbs and adjectives, as well as sensory imagery.

"Sometimes I feel like scrambled eggs
all runny in the pan
My life's the yolk
and I'm the joke
that's served with cheese or bran . . ."

  • Write a poem in the format of "Scrambled Eggs" that includes your feelings. Include sensory imagery and vivid vocabulary.
    "She tends us like hyacinths--
    Delicate sprouts, fragile buds,
    Determined we will bloom.
    Fiercely she rips the weeds
    from around us--
    No ragged, uncultured
    piece of greengrowth
    would ever dare to approach us."

  • Write a poem in the format of "My Mother's Garden" that discusses a favorite person in your life. Include sensory imagery and vivid vocabulary. "You grasp frantically
    to fight away the void of air
    and the collapse of earth
    and the sting of fire."

  • Write a poem in the format of "Searching for a Dream" that discusses hopes and dreams and possibilities. Include sensory imagery and vivid vocabulary.

A. Research the history of school segregation and integration in the United States.
B. Look up the complete story of how Central High School was integrated. Investigate what happened the rest of the 1957-1958 school year, as well as the 1958-1959 school year in Little Rock. Find out also all you can about Central High School today.

Fire from the Rock
By Sharon M. Draper
Available wherever books are sold.