Thursday, August 8, 2013

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

As a kid, my brother would drop the needle on our Monkees' album and we would shout-sing, "Hey, Hey we're the monkees! We keep on monkeying around..." (not sure of the lyrics anymore since it was decades ago). I do remember my brother pretend throwing a football and me doing cartwheels (our version of dancing) before mom eventually hollered, " Uff-da! Turn that down! The house is shaking!" We were the "Heckle an Jeckle" in our family of seven just like Vonetta and Fern are in this story. I found myself smiling at the family teasing, dancing, and shenanigans that reminded me of my own clan. Delphine describes her sisters: "Heckle and Jeckle performed up a storm for Uncle Darnell. Heckle became Hirohito [the boy Delphine likes] writing letters about love and go-karts, and Jeckle became me and wrote back in letters." Many readers can relate as the three girls tease and argue with each other, oftentimes because they resent Delphine's authority as the older sibling. The author uses the 1960s as a backdrop to show how families are not perfect using humor and drama.

This sequel to "One Crazy Summer" has Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern flying back from California where they visited their mother, a poet, who abandoned them at a young age never getting married to their father. The threesome attend the Black Panthers summer camp and learn the injustices and struggles of African Americans in the United States. Feeling empowered by their new knowledge the sequel begins with the girls flying home and asserting their rights in ways that aren't always appropriate. The way they test the waters when using the bathroom not realizing the difference between being rude and assertive is funny and makes for good discussions with students.

When the three girls see their grandmother, Big Ma, who picks them up at the airport with Pa, they no longer think of her as authoritative but oppressive. This not only captures the changes in teenagers as they learn to be independent, but the social issues of African Americans as a suppressed minority group in the U.S. Big Ma was once a slave and her attitude toward white people shows fears that the three girls cannot understand. When the girls misbehave Big Ma overreacts telling to not make a "Negro spectacle" for all the white folks to see. She punishes the girls by hitting them in the face or with a belt. She also shows she loves her grandchildren by caring for them and taking them shopping for school clothes. The girls love her and are afraid of her which is a trait I remember many of my classmates exhibiting toward their parents back in the 60's & 70's. Stories varied from kids getting their mouths washed out with soap for swearing or getting paddled with a wooden spoon or having a belt taken to them for misbehaving.

Big Ma owns a house in Alabama. She grew up with white people lynching black people and her fears are understandable even if the girls don't understand it growing up in New York with their Pa. I was a bit confused by Big Ma and the amount of time she spent living with her grandchildren and sons, Pa and Darnell, in New York. Delphine talks about how Big Ma always buys her ugly clothes for school and Big Ma disciplines the girls like she has raised them, but then she also has a house down south. Perhaps this was in the first book and I just forgot. As is, I didn't really understand Big Ma's motivation for leaving the girls except that it was getting too crowded or Darnell was gone or she didn't want to hear the criticism of Darnell from the angry girls.

Not only did I want an explanation from Big Ma, but I wanted Delphine to get an explanation from Cecile why she left the girls when Fern was a baby. Big Ma says its because Pa wouldn't let Cecile name her Fern, but Cecile doesn't confirm this. In the first book Cecile tells Delphine she was homeless and her Pa found her on a park bench and took her into his home. They had three kids but never married. Whenever Delphine asks for the real reason why she left home, Cecile says she is too young to understand. I'm not sure what to infer from the text except Cecile doesn't want the responsibility of taking care of others.

I did wonder if the book, "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe might be a clue to why Cecile left the girls. Delphine's teacher, Mr. Mwila, loves this book and reads it during class and Delphine asks him about it. Simply put, this story is about a man in Nigeria who is very traditional and when white men enter his village they change his culture in a way that he can't handle and he kills himself as a result. Cecile is a member of the Black Panthers, a group that formed to protect African Americans from police brutality. She embraces change which is opposite of the book, "Things Fall Apart." This book relates more to Big Ma, the character who hangs on to traditions the most and finds it hard to accept change, versus Delphine who slowly accepts changes in her family as a part of her inner journey.

Delphine's teacher, Mr Mwila, makes her cry after criticizing her paper and reads his book, "When Things Fall Apart," after assigning kids to work in groups after a lesson. His teaching leaves much to be desired and his lack of kindness and responsibility toward his students is at times annoying. He isn't outwardly mean which makes him more real and his inexperience is shown subtlety. Most teachers circle the classroom and conference with students after a lesson instead of reading a book for pleasure like Mr. Mwila. When he does this, he is asking for his classroom to "fall apart." It is no surprise when Delphine gets detention along with some other boys after getting into a verbal fight. The author does a good job capturing middle school kids and a classroom community breaking down because of the teacher not doing his job.

The strong, distinct characters make this book memorable.  The family dynamics are constantly changing as the girls deal with their uncle's problems with coming home from Vietnam and their Pa's new wife. The adults fighting and struggles as the family changes, often leaves the girls confused and in the middle of issues they didn't understand. It isn't explained in the book why the new wife left the house angry for a week, and some readers might struggle with understanding how Pa and his new wife were fighting over parenting the three girls. Pa was basically saying they are his girls and not hers to discipline. This is not fair to his new wife and shows a lack of respect for her opinion in dealing with the issue of Darnell's theft.

The plot is more about relationships than surprising plot twists as Delphine learns to accept the change of a new mother. Some parts of the story were predictable, such as the stolen money and the boy's interest in Delphine. While the portrayal of family miscommunications and unclear meanings is a closer reflection of real life, I found myself wishing for more answers. Speaking of not understanding, I wondered about Big Ma calling the girls, "untrained chimps." Calling an African American a monkey or chimp is racist, so I was baffled by Big Ma's name-calling. Did anyone else have that thought?

The clever wordplay of Delphine calling her sisters, "Heckle and Jeckle," not only refers to the classic "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" but the postwar cartoon series about two identical magpies named, "Heckle and Jeckle." They were both aggressive and antagonistic with Jeckle being more devious than Heckle. The characters in this book imitate and compete with each other, Vonetta being a bit more devious than Fern. Their rapid-fire, slapstick dialogue is hysterical and the younger poetic sister trying to rhyme all the time as well as constantly tossing in "surely do" or some other "surely" response make the two original in their own right.

Delphine's character represents a minority group not only as an African American, but as a child. The struggle for children to have their voices heard in the world of adults and adapt to a society that constantly changes is just as applicable today as it was in the 1960's. How she interacts with others in the community to grow into a strong independent woman is a story for all. A terrific story.

4 Smileys

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