Thursday, May 23, 2019

2020 Contenders: For Black Girls Like Me, by Mariama J. Lockington

Eleven-year-old Makeda "Keda" Kirkland is black. Her father, mother, and sister, however, are all white, as Keda was adopted when she was a baby. Keda loves her family, but often feels like they don't understand her. Now, they're moving to New Mexico, taking Keda away from her best friend Lena, and setting her up for what will become the most challenging year of her life.

Spoilers follow, because it's nearly impossible to explain what For Black Girls Like Me does so well without giving away the plot. From the beginning, it's clear that all is not well with Keda's family. Her older sister, Eve, is a teenager whose connection with Keda is becoming strained. Their parents' relationship is showing serious cracks. And something about Mama in particular. A one-time child prodigy on the violin, Mama now almost never plays at all, and veers dramatically from being a bundle of energy with questionable forethought, to a near-comatose figure who can barely get out of bed.

There's much more to the book, including Keda's near-constant encounters with racist peers and clueless adults, and the ways in which her white family struggles to appropriately recognize and deal with these experiences (her parents, especially, are well-meaning white liberals who nevertheless aren't nearly as woke as they think they are; I winced more than once in a kind of embarrassed recognition at their words and actions). But the center of the novel, I think, lies in the breaking apart and bringing back together of the Kirkland family.

The key fracture is inside Mama herself. She is, as is eventually made explicit, suffering from bipolar II disorder. Over the course of the book, Mama becomes more and more erratic, culminating in an episode in which she drags Keda and Eve on a spontaneous trip to Colorado, and then suffers a complete breakdown that ends in a suicide attempt. Papa isn't there to prevent any of this, as he is out of the country on an orchestra tour, having convinced himself in the face of significant evidence to the contrary that Mama will be okay as the sole parent in the house for several weeks.

The way that this dynamic is portrayed seemed extremely true to life to me. I've known many people with bipolar disorder in my life, and I found the book's characterization of the disease to be thoughtful and accurate. For Black Girls Like Me treats its characters with kindness, but it doesn't shy away at all from depicting the pain and anguish that untreated mental illness of this type can cause.

And in a larger way, empathetic but unsentimental is the way that For Black Girls Like Me treats just about everything. This is the kind of middle grade novel that not only features a scene in which a particularly vicious peer calls Keda the n-word, but puts the word there on the page in all of its unredacted ugliness. In the hands of a lesser writer than Mariama J. Lockington, this would be an invitation to disaster, but Lockington effectively uses this episode to force us to confront the ways in which language can be a form of violence.

I don't think For Black Girls Like Me is quite a perfect book (the bits with the Georgia Belles, who are possibly either spirit guardians for Keda, or a certain part of her subconscious coming to the surface, felt less integrated into the larger narrative to me). I do think it's an important, vital book, one that heralds the arrival of an important new voice (this is Lockington's first book for children). That may not be enough to push it past The Moon Within or The Lost Girl in the Newbery race, but it should absolutely put it on the radar of librarians, teachers, and readers nationwide.

Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux

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