A Great Book, but Golly-Gee Whillikers!

Follow My Leader is such a great story, and I read it over and over when I was in elementary school. Written by James B. Garfield, it tells the story of young Jimmy, who is blinded in a firecracker accident. Jimmy is an aspiring baseball player with an active lifestyle, and in an instant, his life changes dramatically. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to do the things he loves again. He also wonders if he’ll ever be able to deal with the anger and bitterness he feels towards Mike, the boy whose carelessness and arrogance is responsible for his disability.

leaderThe novel was originally written in 1957, and the setting is “modern” for its publication date. And that’s the major drawback, I think as I reread it now, that my students will have in enjoying it. It’s such a good story, telling how he begins his new life, learning the life skills he needs to survive and be successful. His friends are supportive and learn Braille with him so they can use it as a secret code. His frustrations and setbacks are dealt with sensitively and with humor. The big event, though, is when he is sent to a training program to learn to work with his service dog, Leader. Reading along as Leader opens up Jimmy’s world, and even manages to help him come to terms with the boy who blinded him, is powerful and satisfying.

As I said, though, the setting could be stumbling-block for today’s students. I guess what I really mean is the dialog within the setting. There’s a certain Leave It To Beaver vibe throughout the book that rings false with kids now, however realistic it might have been then. I do not remember being put off by it as an elementary reader back in the Sixties, when the book was still relatively new, so it must be just an issue of changing times. I also imagine children with disabilities receive services through their medical teams and schools in a very different manner than they did back then. Still, if there is a drawback for kids today, it’s going to the “golly-gee whillikers, you fellows, that’s just swell” dialog. If they can move past that, they’ll enjoy a story that’s more universal than the dialog itself would make you believe. Did we really talk like that back then?

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