There are many poignant and inspirational middle grade novels about the civil rights era - The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 is one outstanding example - but until now, almost none about its more radical aftermath. (One excellent exception is The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, for ages twelve and up.) In the summer of 1968, the Black Panthers in Oakland, California were posing with rifles to show their resistance to the authorities, but also running free breakfast programs and childcare centers for the community. Into this scenario steps our narrator, eleven-year-old Delphine Gaither, who is shepherding her two quarrelsome younger sisters, nine-year-old Vonetta and seven-year-old Fern, on a plane from New York to spend a month with their mother, Cecile, in Oakland. Their Pa has decided they need to know her, though she abandoned the family when Fern was a baby, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother, Big Ma.
Delphine has memories of her mother writing on walls and arguing with Papa, but she is still stunned to reconnect with her tall, no-nonsense, angry mother who may look like "a colored movie star," but makes it clear that she considers her daughters' visit a huge intrusion. "Cecile was no kind of mother. Cecile didn't want us. Cecile was crazy." A real mother would cook them dinner; Cecile sends them to get take-out at Ming's, tells them they are not allowed in her kitchen, and sends them to The People's Center, run by the Black Panthers, for breakfast every day. Cecile is a poet, known as Sister Inzilla to the Panthers, and she might win your designation as Worst Mother in a children's book, but she is a nuanced and surprising character.
Delphine's story overflows with her unvarnished observations about the Panthers, the differences between black Oakland and white San Francisco, and how the girls cope when their mother is arrested. Expect to see some major awards - it was just nominated for a 2010 National Book Award, for one-for this vivid portrayal of a girl who considers herself plain and steady, who has taken over mothering her two sisters, who wants to know why her mother left, and who chronicles her world with such clarity.
Reviewed by : JF.
Themes : AFRICAN AMERICANS. HISTORICAL FICTION. MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS. U.S. HISTORY.
CRITICS HAVE SAID
With memorable characters (all three girls have engaging, strong voices) and a powerful story, this is a book well worth reading and rereading.
School Library Journal
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Creech, Sharon. The Wanderer. HarperCollins, 2000.
Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. Delacorte, 1995.
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Holm, Jennifer L. Turtle in Paradise. Random House, 2010.
Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice. Farrar/Kroupa, 2009.
Magoon, Kekla. The Rock and the River. Aladdin, 2009.
McWhorter, Diane. A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Scholastic, 2004.
O’Connor, Barbara. How to Steal a Dog. Frances Foster/Farrar, 2007.
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