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Middle Grade Monday – the Incomparable Rita Williams-Garcia

At about 1/3 of the way through, I think I am in love with P.S. Be Eleven. Rita Williams-Garcia has managed to capture both my attention and my imagination with this sequel to the multiple honor and award winning One Crazy Summer. She picks up directly where the first novel ended. Eleven year old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, have returned home to Papa and Big Ma in Brooklyn. They’ve returned to the culture in which they were raised – home from a summer with their estranged mother in California, where they were exposed to a very different culture. Their mother, Cecile, is an artist with ties to the Black Panther movement. The summer was, to put it mildly, eye-opening.

Now back in Brooklyn, they are again under the thumb of Big Ma, their paternal grandmother, with her traditional ideas of how young black girls in the 1960s should look and act. If that weren’t enough to give Delphine cultural whiplash, Papa has become not-so-subtly different over their summer apart. He has new clothes, wears cologne, and whistles and sings cheerfully. Papa…has a lady friend. He has been ‘keeping company’ with a young woman who enters into the girls’ lives in a rather abrupt fashion. Delphine is also facing changes at school. All summer she’s been looking forward to sixth grade and having Ms. Honeywell (who is modern in both her fashion and pedagogy) as her teacher. Imagine Delphine’s shock when she arrives on the first day of class to find Ms. Honeywell replaced by a small man with a foreign accent and a stern manner!

Sixth grade is a time of great change and upheaval in a middle grader’s life. Responsibilities and privileges increase at the same time that hormones kick in. Simultaneously, it is a time when most children become increasingly aware of the world around them – there are other cultures, countries, and people groups who live lives both similar and extremely different to theirs. Williams-Garcia has launched her protagonist on this journey with gusto. But beyond this, she has done something few authors for this age group succeed in doing. Instead of simply illustrating the clashes between cultures within a society, she has opened a window onto the dissonant groups within a subculture in a society.

Often, minority groups are presented as one-dimensional, all members being united in a single culture or goal. This is not necessarily bad, depending on the age group being written for or the goals of the author, but it can be limiting. Middle grade readers are at a stage where they can recognize these detailed nuances of subcultural differences, and Williams-Garcia gives them credit for it with her work. P.S. Be Eleven does an amazing job of presenting the myriad complexities of one culture within a country, one people group within a larger culture. Additionally, these complexities reach out to include issues that were at the forefront of national concern at the time, regardless of race or culture, such as the war in Vietnam. This is an extremely intricate and detailed look at a particular time in our history that honors it’s readers by not simplifying the issues while telling an engaging, personal story of one girl’s journey through her experience of these times. Would that all literature for the middle grade reader were this rich and nuanced.

What have you been reading recently that expands your ideas of the complexities of the middle school reader? Share in the comments!