63 pages 2 hours read

A.S King

Attack Of The Black Rectangles

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2022

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Attack of the Black Rectangles by Amy Sarig King was published in 2022 by Scholastic Press. Written for a middle grade audience, the novel explores the repercussions of censorship, the importance of telling the truth, having the freedom to make choices, the difficulties of developing one’s identity and values, and navigating relationships in adolescence. King is the author of over a dozen novels that are all written for young adult and middle grade readers and tackle similar themes of social justice, family relationships, mental and emotional wellness, and identity formation. Many of King’s novels have won awards, and she also received the Margaret A. Edwards Award and Alan Award for her overall contributions to young adult and middle grade literature.

This study guide refers to the 2022 Scholastic Press edition of the book.

Content Warning: The novel and this study guide contain descriptions of family trauma, war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, discrimination, bullying, censorship, and scenes from the Holocaust.

Plot Summary

Mac Delaney is an 11-year-old boy who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. He introduces his town, his family, and a teacher, Ms. Sett, who often writes into the local newspaper to demand rules that limit the townspeople’s freedoms. He disagrees with the strict rules of the town; they might keep people safe but are built on lies or ignoring reality. 

Mac first met Ms. Sett on a field trip to Philadelphia. She was visibly annoyed when Mac asked how many signers of the Declaration of Independence were enslavers. Another student, Marci, asked why women couldn’t sign it. Ms. Sett did not appreciate the students asking challenging questions. 

Mac’s mom works at a hospice care facility, his grandad lives in their basement, and his father is an eccentric man who hasn’t lived with Mac for several years. Mac explains that his father visits to work on Grandad’s old car with him on the weekends and that his dad likes to say that he isn’t from their galaxy. His dad thinks of Grandad’s car as his spaceship and himself as an alien anthropologist.

Over the summer between fifth and sixth grade, Mac, Denis, and Marci learn that they have been assigned to Ms. Sett’s class. They are apprehensive about it based on the letters she writes to the newspaper suggesting more rules and the rumors that she is a stickler for proper posture. 

School starts, and Ms. Sett does not seem as strict as they feared; in fact, Mac appreciates that she treats them like adults and wants them to pursue independent learning on topics that interest them. Ms. Sett puts the class in literature circle groups based on books they choose, and Mac, Denis, and Marci end up in the same group. Mac’s group will be reading The Devil’s Arithmetic, a story about the Holocaust, and will meet to discuss it and complete assignments.

A few days after starting the literature circles, Marci points out that portions of the novel’s text are covered with a black rectangle. Denis, Marci, and Mac meet at the library the next morning, but the library does not have a copy of the book. They find an unmarked copy of The Devil’s Arithmetic at a bookstore and realize that their school copies have blacked out portions of the text that refer to a character’s breasts. Mac talks about the situation with his mom and grandad, who do not condone censorship. While they talk, Mac’s mom asks his grandad if he used her favorite mug. His grandad tells Mac’s mother that he didn’t use it, and they share a knowing glance. Later, Mac’s grandad buys him the unmarked copy so that Mac can fully experience the book the way it was meant to be read. 

After dinner, Mac, his mom, and Grandad are researching censorship and banning books when Mac’s father, Mike, comes over. As Mac writes an email to the author of The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen, Mac’s mom asks Mac’s dad about her favorite mug. Mike tells her he smashed it, without guilt, because he was angry. Mac thinks about how the mug was his grandmother’s, and he knows his mom is upset. Grandad tells Mac to come walk with him, and when they return home, Mike is gone. Later that evening, Mac’s dad wakes him up at one o’clock in the morning to take him on a ride in his spaceship. As he drives Grandad’s car, Mike explains that he came to Earth to learn about love but that he couldn’t feel love the same way other humans do. It makes Mac angry to know that his dad doesn’t love his mom, or even him, the way they want to be loved. 

Mac, Denis, and Marci ask to meet with the principal, Dr. McKenny, about the censored books. Dr. McKenny does not seem concerned, which makes Mac angrier. Marci explains to the two boys that the fact that the censored words are about breasts shows how sexist and patriarchal their society is. When Marci is punished for a dress code violation, this illustrates her point that patriarchy is a system that everyone lives in, not just isolated incidents of sexism perpetrated by men. 

Ms. Sett teaches the class about Christopher Columbus, claiming that he “discovered” America, but Mac argues that he brought disease and destruction to the Native Americans. Ms. Sett gives him detention. Later that afternoon, when Mac is home alone, his dad shows up unannounced. Mac is worried and tries to keep his dad outside on the porch until Grandad returns. His grandad and mom handle Mike’s sudden visit gracefully, but Mac can tell that he wasn’t supposed to be there. At dinner, Mac tells them about how he is fighting censorship at school with his friends. Now that they have talked to the principal, they think going to a school board meeting is the next step.

Grandad suggests that they protest censorship outside of the bookstore. Mac plans with Marci and Denis about how they will approach the school board about the censorship issue. Meanwhile, Denis has noticed that Mac has a crush on Marci and urges him to ask her to the homecoming dance.

One day, Mac comes home and finds that a lot of their possessions are missing. They guess that Mike has taken their things and left; Mac’s grandad calls the police to take care of it.

Denis tells Marci that Mac likes her, and Mac learns that she likes him, too. Meanwhile, the group is making progress in The Devil's Arithmetic, and Aaron James, the only group member who hasn't read ahead, finally encounters the black rectangles. Aaron often makes rude jokes and has the same closed-minded perspective that Mac hates about most of the adults in his town, but the group explains the censorship to him in a way that makes him angry that his rights are being threatened. Mac, Marci, and Denis give a presentation at the school board meeting, but they feel like the members do not regard their issue as a priority.

Mac’s grandad encourages him to stand up for what he believes in but also to be gentle with himself. He encourages Mac to cry, meditate, and have the confidence to ask Marci to the dance. Mac realizes that his grandad is a real father figure for him. Marci and Mac have a good time at the dance, but when they take a walk with Denis later that night, a police officer tells them they are violating the curfew—another town rule they disagree with. The town’s strict safety rules lead to the cancellation of trick-or-treating on Halloween, angering the townspeople who lend their support to Mac, Marci, and Denis’s campaign against censorship. The school board calls an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, and more community members attend to support Mac and his friends. After several parents speak, Jane Yolen herself, the author of The Devil's Arithmetic, speaks. She says that she is used to having her books banned, but it is important for children to know the truth about the world. Adults should help children understand tough topics, not shield them.

Aaron and another classmate surprise everyone by sending a powerful message, as well. Hoa, the other classmate, found more books in Ms. Sett’s classroom with black rectangles, and she stands up to read passages from them while Aaron yells out, “BLACK RECTANGLE!” every time a word or phrase is marked out. The whole crowd joins in the shouting, and it is a powerful and dramatic demonstration of the impact of censoring the truth.

After the school board meeting, nothing changes immediately, but the townspeople seem more and more willing to challenge authority. The school board is forced to meet more frequently in a larger venue because so many people want to come. Pizza delivery is reinstated, and the policy on house paint expands to approve colors other than white. To Mac, it feels like progress, and he is hopeful. Even if the board does not make any major policy changes, he has seen the value in standing up for his beliefs and still believes that speaking and learning the truth is the most important thing.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text