With racial tensions mounting in the nation, author Bibi Belford decided to look to Chicago's past for her new children's novel.
Belford's latest book, "Crossing the Line," was released Aug. 22 by Sky Pony Press and follows the budding friendship of two 11-year-old boys — one white, one black — whose relationship tears apart the South Side and eventually culminates in the 1919 race riots in Chicago.
Told from the perspective of Billy McDermott, an avid White Sox fan born into a poor Irish family in Bridgeport, "Crossing the Line" explores aspects of poverty and labor tensions in addition to racial strife. With Billy's father still hospitalized from shell shock suffered during World War I, the family's poverty forces Billy to drop out of Nativity of Our Lord Catholic school to attend the public James Ward in Armour Square, where he befriends Foster Williams.
As the boys become "best friends in a private, sneaky kind of way," Billy sees racism firsthand from teenage members of Bridgeport's Hamburg Athletic Club and his friend Timmy.
"I'm ashamed I only started paying attention when it affected me," Billy says at one point of the racism, which results in tragedy when Billy, Foster and Foster's older brothers build a raft and cross an unofficial color line dividing beaches between 25th and 29th Streets.
Though set in 1919, the novel for children ages 10-14 deals with an issue society is still grappling with, Belford said.
"I wish it wasn't quite so timely," she said. "It frightens me that we're still seeing so much hate and that we haven't gotten rid of this a hundred years ago."
Belford, the author of "Canned and Crushed" and a teacher and writing instructor for more than 35 years, said she took inspiration from a plaque on the lakeshore path near 29th Street dedicated to 17-year-old Eugene Williams, whose death July 27, 1919, sparked the race riots that left 38 dead, injured more than 500 people and left about 1,000 African-Americans homeless.
"I saw this stone with a plaque, and it was confusing to me because I had never heard of Eugene Williams and never heard of the race riots," said Belford, who started writing the book in 2015. "I grew up in Wheaton, and it just wasn't a part of our curriculum. It wasn't taught."
Belford, who lives in the South Loop, said she went home that night and began researching the riot and the racial tensions of the era.
"It's always difficult as a white writer to write about the struggles you don't have," Belford said. "But I knew there was a big racial tension between the Irish and blacks at the time. Things fell into place after doing the research."
Part of that research included hiring a boat driver to take her down the Chicago River to explore Bubbly Creek and the various tributaries on the river's South Branch, which play a large role in the book.
While "Crossing the Line" deals with a heavy topic for middle-grade readers, it attempts to do so while keeping certain sensitivities in mind, said Rachel Stark, the book's editor at Sky Pony, an imprint of Skyhorse.
"We took some considerations with readers' ages," she said. "But kids today are grappling with this stuff. They're as scared and concerned as we are, and it's our responsibility to give them tools to teach them."
Exposing young people to these tools is part of a healing educational process, Belford said.
"It's important for me as a white writer to say I want healing, I want there to be peace in our world and for people to be tolerant of each other," she said. "My goal is for readers to see that character and say to themselves, 'That's like me and I can make a difference in my school, my community, my world. It's my life, who I open the door for, who I help on the street. I can learn, I can grow, I can be a better person tomorrow.' "