Thursday, May 16, 2013

2014 Contenders: P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

This sequel to One Crazy Summer picks up exactly where the first book left off. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are flying home after their crazy summer in Oakland, full of the confidence and maturity instilled by a month with their poet mother and the Black Panthers. When they land in New York, though, they find that their minds are not the only things that have undergone a change. Their father has a stylish new girlfriend, their uncle is on his way home from the war, and Delphine has a new teacher on exchange from Zambia. Things are changing in the larger world as well, and Delphine works through her feelings about all of this turmoil in a series of letters to her mother, Cecile, whose replies always advise her, "P.S. - be eleven!"

There's a thing that happens to me every year. Sometimes it happens in January, sometimes not until August, but every year, eventually, I pick up a middle grade book that makes me say, "YES. That is how it's done." Whatever book triggers the reaction doesn't necessarily remain my favorite for the rest of the year, but it serves a crucial function: it revives my enthusiasm for children's literature as a whole. This year, that book is P.S. Be Eleven. 

It's almost a shame that the first chapter - "A Grand Negro Spectacle" - isn't part of the first book, because it makes such an elegant foil to the first chapter of One Crazy Summer. Where Delphine was uptight and overcautious on the plane ride out to Oakland, she is now relaxed, confident and even a bit mischievous. I laughed out loud in several places as the three sisters tore through the airport, leaving havoc in their wake. Of course, Big Ma is not amused by their sassy attitudes, and the sisters have to find a way to fit their big new Oakland personalities back into their old Brooklyn lives. It is these growing pains that occupy the majority of the book.

As in the first book, setting and character are superbly drawn. Williams-Garcia has an uncanny knack for capturing the spirit of a time and place, and she weaves period details like the rise of the Jackson Five and the problems of Vietnam Vets expertly into the novel. Though Delphine is every inch a complex, flesh-and-blood eleven-year-old girl, her experience also seems to represent a subtle turning point in the African-American experience as a whole. She looks to the role models in her life for direction, and each of them represents a particular point on the philosophical compass. From Big Ma, who is always "colored" or "negro" and never black, to revolutionary poet Cecile, to Pa's liberated new girlfriend, they pull Delphine in twelve directions at once. Ultimately, though, it is Cecile's advice that resonates: be eleven, Delphine. Take your time, make your own choices, and don't grow up too fast.

There is darkness in this novel - more so than in One Crazy Summer - and it ends on a much more melancholy note than the first novel. There is hope too, though, and the thread of laughter and love that made One Crazy Summer so delightful. Ultimately, like Cecile, we as readers feel confident that Delphine will develop into a strong woman who will look back on this year with a smile. 

Publication in May through Amistad (HarperCollins)

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