There isn’t enough room on the front of this small book to show all the awards it garnered, including that of National Book Award Finalist. And well-deserved they are; this middle-grade book is a pure delight, and I was charmed from the first page.
It is the summer of 1968, and narrator Delphine, “eleven going on twelve,” is in charge of her two younger sisters, Vonetta, 9, and Fern, 7, as they fly out alone from Brooklyn, NY to Berkeley, CA to meet their mother Cecile, who left right after Fern was born. They have been happy with their Pa and his mother, “Big Ma,” who came up from Alabama to help care for them after Cecile left, but they are curious about their mother, and Pa thinks it’s time they get to know each other.
Cecile, as Delphine understands right away, is more like just a biological mother than anything else. Delphine explains that she would never dream of calling Cecile “Mommy, Mom, Mama, or Ma:”
“Mommy gets up to give you a glass of water in the middle of the night. Mom invites your friends inside when it’s raining. Mama burns your ears with the hot comb to make your hair look pretty for class picture day. Ma is sore and worn out from wringing your wet clothes and hanging them to dry; Ma needs peace and quiet at the end of the day.
We don’t have one of those. We have a statement of fact.”
Sure enough, when the kids arrive, Cecile hardly talks to them except to insist they stay away all day and not bother her, sending them off to a Black Panther summer day camp for kids.
The kids learn that the Black Panthers are much different than the media has portrayed them; with the Black Panthers, they get care, schooling, and food, none of which their own mother is interested in providing. It will also be interesting for young readers to see the difference between the then-new approach to discrimination by the Black Power movement of the Black Panthers versus the fearful accommodation of Big Ma, who learned in the South that standing up for yourself could mean death.
By the end of the 28 days of their visit, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have changed the way they think about a lot of things – all three of them growing up in different ways – as has Cecile, who they find may have a hint of mothering in her after all.
Discussion: It would be a mistake to dismiss this as “just a middle grade book.” Not only are the characters complex, fascinating, and well-drawn, but the writing is excellent. In this passage for example, Delphine is thinking about how much she likes her own name:
“Delphine had a grown sound like it was waiting for me to slide into it, like a grown woman slides into a mink coat and clips on ruby earrings.”
And Delphine has this to say about the dictionary (which she very humorously assumes was written by a woman):
“Good old Merriam Webster. I trusted Merriam because I thought, instead of having children she didn’t want, she wrote the dictionary. She didn’t have anything else better to do, probably didn’t have sisters and brothers to see after, which was why she knew every word in the world. Big Ma would have said Merriam might as well be useful.”
In that one short paragraph, we not only catch Delphine’s sense of humor, but also see how she felt about her mother and her sisters, and get a hint of the influence her grandmother had over her life.
There are number of teaching guides and resource lists associated with this book that you can link to from here.
Evaluation: I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book, but I’m awfully glad I decided to pick it up at last. It’s a short little book but packs a wallop, with unforgettable characters.
Published in paperback by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2010
Note: Some of the awards this book has won include:
2011 Coretta Scott King Award Winner
2011 Newbery Honor Book
2011 Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction
2010 National Book Award Finalist
Junior Library Guild Selection
Parents’ Choice Gold Award
ALA Notable Book
Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best
Texas Library Association Best Book for 2010