Highly recommended for ages 8-12.
Award-winning young adult author Rita Williams-Garcia's first book aimed at tweens has been getting a lot of "buzz" in the children's book community, and I was eager to read it for myself. Set in Oakland in the turbulent summer of 1968, the story revolves around three sisters who are sent from New York to visit their mother, Cecile, for the summer.
Our narrator is the no-nonsense eldest sister, 11-year old Delphine, who is saddled with responsibility for watching out for her two younger siblings, Vonetta and Fern. Their dreams of a summer spent "riding wild waves on surfboards, picking oranges and apples off fruit trees, filling our autograph books with signatures from movie stars we'd see in soda shops, and...going to Disneyland" are soon shattered when they discover that their "Secret Agent Mother," a poet and a member of the Black Panthers, seems to not have a maternal bone in her body and wants nothing to do with them, not even remembering to give them dinner but finally sending them to the Chinese restaurant down the street for take-out. No one is allowed in her kitchen, where she writes poetry and keeps her printing press. She sends them off to an unusual day camp at The People's Center, run by the Black Panthers. At camp, Delphine has plenty of problems protecting her youngest sister Fern, who carries around a beloved white doll named Miss Patty Cake, from ridicule by the other children. In addition to free meals, the girls get "re-education" in revolutionary change, even though one of the girls says, "we didn't come for the revolution. We came for breakfast." But the girls learn that the Black Panthers are not just about "angry fist wavers with...their rifles ready for shooting." They are also about passing out toast and teaching in classrooms.
The author explores the different racial attitudes that existed in the 1960's with sensitivity but without shirking. While the girls wait for their mother to pick them up at the airport, for example, "A large white woman came and stood before us, clapping her hands like we were on display at the Bronx Zoo. 'Oh, my. What adorable dolls you are. My, my.'" The lady tries to give them nickels, which Delphine refuses. Another example is Delphine's explanation of colored counting, where "not only did we count how many colored people were on TV, we also counted the number of words the actors were given to say...and then there was a new show, Julia, coming out in September, starring Diahann Carroll. We agreed to shout out "Black Inifinity" when Julia came on because each episode would be all about her character."
Ms. Williams does a wonderful job capturing a unique voice for plain-spoken Delphine, who tells it like it is, narrating a story that takes place at an important time and place in our country's history. But the Black Panthers movement forms a backdrop for a novel that is essentially a family drama as three daughters try to work out their relationship with this not-very-maternal woman who is their mother. Her relationship with the girls is not sugar-coated, yet the novel is filled with humor and Ms. Williams' obvious affection for her characters.
On Ms. Williams' website, she states, "Writing stories for young people is my passion and my mission." She is so committed to literature for young people that she even offers her own short story writing contest to encourage and reward young people's writing. Open to kids from 12-19, the winner receives a check for $100, a certificate, and a personal critique by Rita Williams-Garcia! See her website for further details.
To explore the Black Panthers further in historical fiction, you may want to read The Rock and the River, by Kekla Magoon (Aladdin Press, 2009). From the author's website, "CHICAGO, 1968. For thirteen-year-old Sam, it's not easy being the son of a well-known civil rights activist. When he learns that his brother, Stick, has joined The Black Panthers, Sam faces a difficult decision. Will he follow his father, or his brother? His mind, or his heart? The rock, or the river?"