Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

In my continuous adventures of black YA fiction, I discovered these stories that took me back to the childhood of my big brothers and sisters - 1968.  I would have been a little younger than the baby sister, Ferm AKA Little Girl AKA Afua and would have been absorbing all the changes happening around me.  I would four years old in 1968, the year my mother died, the year the world changed, the year that helped usher in the moving Black Power movements of the 1970s and young people stepping courageously out into the world won through the Civil Rights Movement.

One Crazy SummerOne Crazy Summer finds the three sisters - Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern - being sent from their home in BedSty, New York to their barely remembered poet mother in Oakland, Carlifornia.

When I first purchased the book for my daughters, I almost put it down because I didn't want them to read stories about an absent mother.  I'm glad I overcame my initial reservation and allowed myself to be transported back in time that is still a cherished memory for my older siblings.

1968 was the year of a Presidential election, an assassination, race riots, and lots of lots of change.  Young black people were shedding the gloves and pressed hair in favor of the afro and diashiki.  There was a clash of generations happening among the Negro (or Colored, as the older generation was still calling themselves) and the emerging Black identity of 1968.  There were the older ones like Big Ma who fondly remembered the Republican Party that was the Party of Lincoln and there were the younger ones, like Pa, who wouldn't trust them and shifted to the Democratic Party of Senator Robert Kennedy.

The story finds the girls traveling along the first time on an airplane, being greeted at the airport by a mother in "men's pants" with a big afro and who used her kitchen as a studio/printer.  At only eleven, Delphine had the responsibility of going out at night to "Mean Lady Ming's" for some takeout Chinese, something that would never have crossed their lips in Big Ma's kitchen in New York.  Delphine already knew how to cut up a chicken and cook a proper meal but their mother, Cecile, AKA, Nzinga, would never let them cross the threshold, all their meals on paper plates sitting on the floor in the bare living room.

Life in Oakland in that tumultuous summer found them at the Black Panther Party summer program learning about black history and protesting the mistreatment by the police, AKA "the man" or "the pig."  They encountered the iconic dark sunglasses, beret, and black turtleneck of the idealistic young people who wanted to provide better opportunities for their community.

Delphine encountered new friends, felt the tingle of first crush, and began to understand and forgive a mother who left for her own reasons, never married to her father and never accepted by Big Ma.

The story ended with the girls receiving something none of them could remember - a hug from Cecile at the airport and a promise to keep writing.

When that eventful summer ended, Delphine had a new understanding, Vonetta continued to be the craver of attention, and Fern AKA Little Girl AKA Afua proved herself to not be such a baby after all.

P.S. Be Eleven picked up in the fall where One Crazy Summer left off.  The author, Rita Williams-Garcia indicated she felt there was more to tell of the three sisters in that fall of 1968.

Delphine was starting sixth grade and they came home to their smiling, happy father who had a new love interest who eventually became the Mrs.  I remember what that was like, mine happened in the summer of 1972 when  my father came to pick up my brother and I with his new Mrs. We were seven and five, respectively.

The girls dealt with the changes of their neighborhood, including those returning from the War. They discovered their Uncle Darnell in Vietnam was coming home and came home "sick." Later in the story, the sickness is revealed that became another plague on a lost generation.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern discovered The Jackson Five and were focused on going to the December 1968 concert in Madison Square Garden.  They had to wade through the comments and feelings of their father who thought they were "a bunch of finger popping hoodlums" and their Big Ma who only wanted to  play gospel.  Their father would play Johnny Mathis on Christmas.  It was a clash of three generations all experiencing a great deal of change.

The girls wanted to wear their hair in an afro even though Big Ma still wanted them to have that earlier generation press and curl. Delphine felt boxed in when shopping for her sixth grade attire and wanted one of those "mod pant suits" that one of her friends was getting while Big Ma wanted to continue to purchase the plaid skirts she thought appropriate for a little girl.

Throughout the story, the girls kept a correspondence with their mother who always ended her notes to Delphine to "p.s. Be Eleven."  It was a message to not take on so many grown up issues, to stay a little girl, and even to wait until she was fourteen or sixteen to read certain books.  Cecile was being as much of a mother as she could to her daughter who quietly remembered sitting at her feet while Cecile wrote her poems on everything from Cream of Wheat Boxes to the Walls (in One Crazy Summer.)

The girls dealt with Vonette growing up and showing herself to be a responsible banker who held onto her grudge and anger when Uncle Darnell ripped them off.  Fern continued to blossom and was more perceptive than her big sisters often let her.  All three adjusted to the Mrs. who gave them the love and affection of a mother that they all thought they didn't need.

Change seemed to be the theme of both books and both are highly recommended for the tween  market who want a little glimpse into the world of the baby boomer teens.  These were the children of the movement, the children who are adults, parents and grandparents today, who perhaps carry within them some of the idealism, hope, and optimism they held in 1968 when they were eleven.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

no laughter here by Rita Williams-Garcia

I must say that I have enjoyed my "summer vacation" through middle grade and YA literature.

Yesterday, I picked up the book, no laughter here by Rita Williams-Garcia.  I decided to do something I hadn't done in a while - read aloud with my 10 and 12 year old daughters.  It was a good thing I did.

This tender age is filled with wonder and questions, friendship and laughter, crushes and questions.  In the summer before fifth grade (exactly where my 10 year old is right now) something changed between Akilah (the protagonist) and her friend Victoria.

My daughter loves to hang out with her friends from school and church. Through the wonders of modern technology, like when this book was set, they were able to keep in touch through vacation trips.  The girls in this book promised to write each other across the Atlantic as Victoria (Queen Victoria, according to her) traveled to her family's ancestral village in Nigeria to undergo a rite-of-passage.

Like all girls with a vivid imagination, the girls wondered what that rite would be.  Victoria and Akilah imagined that this would be her receiving her queenly name or some other mystical thing.  Akilah's parents had performed an infant naming ceremony for her and like many displaced Africans in America, mythologized many customs and created others in hopes of connecting with lost West African roots.

This summer, though, was different.  It was very late when Victoria came back and the girls were not able to do those back-to-school activities like anticipate their new teacher, go supply shopping, and do the all-important back-to-school outfit comparison.

Akilah noticed the differences in her friend and used her wit and friendship to uncover from her dearest friend what made her so sad and silent.

This tender story unfolds in Akilah's voice and her wrestling with being the only child, having a crush, "becoming a woman" and standing up for those without a voice.

My 12 year old connected with the empowered writer in Akilah and recently took to the pen to right a wrong.

The author's note at the end of the book invites not only action for the millions of girls undergoing an ancient ritual, but helps parents have a tender conversation about a woman's body and who actually "owns" it.

I have had conversations with my daughters their entire lives about their bodies, giving them the proper names for their genitalia and empowered them to make decisions for their personal selves.  In so doing, I hope that I have given them the tools they will need as they mature in a society (both American and African) that tends to otherize, control, and exert power over the female form.

This book is highly recommended for 5th grade and above.  The topic itself can help mothers and daughters have that important conversation about themselves. In the case of the ones who have undergone FGM (female genital mutilation), it could help them know they are not alone and even though they have undergone the ritual, they have a tool at their disposal to make a change for the future generations.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Summer With Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle

It has been a pleasure to deviate from my literary criticisms of African American female literary works to step back into my youth and explore the wonders of African American youth fiction.

The recent commentary regarding the importance of diverse characters in children's literature, the all-white book panel at the children's trade book fair in New York, and the overwhelming whiteness of teen/tween books prompted me to set about uncovering the works that are there, sending my manuscript to my publisher, and supporting a group of teen writers to keep their passion for this craft we love.

I founded the Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle to first encourage these teens to discover works their mainstream middle and high schools would ignore and to help them form a like-minded peer group of fellow bibliophiles.

The summer has not been disappointing.

They explored poetry works by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes before delving into the realistic fiction that mirrors their life experience.

The following books are some of the ones they've read in the past four weeks:

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Black Boy by Richard Wright
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Clone Codes by The McKissacks
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones

Over the next couple weeks, some of these books will be reviewed. We appreciate the generosity of the Kirkwood Public Library in gifting the spacious meeting room with AV, wireless, and computer capabilities that enables us to expand our discussion and incorporate technology. In reading The Clone Codes, for instance, we were able to research the Slave Codes that were enacted in 1866 throughout the confederate south. We were able to explore the 13th-15th Amendments of the Constitution, and listen to Maya Angelou read On The Pulse of Morning.

We invite you to read along with us and dialogue with the young readers of Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle.

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