YA fiction: ‘P.S. Be Eleven,’ by Rita Williams-Garcia

August 27, 2013

The Jackson Five have three new fans: Delphine, Vonetta and Fern.

It’s 1968, and the sisters are just home from a trip to San Francisco to reunite with their mom, who walked out on them right after Fern was born.

Fans of Rita Williams-Garcia’s terrific young-adult novels will remember that the girls’ visit didn’t go quite as they’d expected in “One Crazy Summer,”a Newbery Honor Book. The sisters wanted their mom to take them to Disneyland. Instead, she sent them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers.

“P.S. Be Eleven” picks up where “One Crazy Summer” left off — with the girls on a plane back to Brooklyn. Lessons about civil rights and solidarity won’t fly with their grandmother, Big Ma. While Delphine dreams of mod fashions and jeans, Big Ma is still holding on to her wig and Sunday hats.

The airport reunion is disastrous. Instead of a hug, Big Ma slaps Delphine across the face after a white woman complains about their behavior. (Fern had to go; there was a long line in the bathroom; the little girl didn’t quite make it.) “I don’t know what you did, but I know one thing,” says Big Ma, whose idea of justice is tinted by fear. “It was wrong enough for that white woman to come over here, and it was bad enough she thought you had something coming.”


"P.S. Be Eleven" by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad)

Despite the promise of an impending whipping, Delphine is glad to get back to the little house on Herkimer Street. “I was glad to find everything where we had left it. Even neighbors sat on their stoops as if they hadn’t moved since we had gone.” But plenty of changes have come to Herkimer Street. Their father is getting remarried, and Big Ma and Delphine aren’t happy about it. (Vonetta and Fern just want to be flower girls.) Their Uncle Darnell comes home from the Vietnam War, changed from the sunny, upbeat guy who left. Instead of the sixth-grade teacher Delphine was looking forward to, she has an exchange teacher from Zambia, Mr. Mwila, who believes in first drafts, research and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” (In her first stab at library research, Delphine is shocked to discover that her idol, Merriam Webster, is not a woman.)

Amid the upheaval at home is one constant: The Jackson Five are playing Madison Square Garden, and the three sisters are determined to be there.

To make sense of all the change, Delphine writes to her mother, who repeats the advice she gave Delphine at the end of “One Crazy Summer”: “Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can.”

“I was eleven. How could you become what you already were?” Delphine wonders.

“Don’t concern yourself with old things. Concern yourself with finding your own thing,” her mother writes. “But don’t rush.”

“P.S. Be Eleven” doesn’t have any show-stopping scenes like the climax of “One Crazy Summer,” but this more quiet sequel covers a lot of ground and a lot of heartbreak. When Delphine writes to her mom after her birthday, she thinks she finally will have the last word: “P.S. I am twelve.”

The answer comes back: “P.S. Still, be eleven.”

Speaking as a mother of an 11-year-old: I think that’s good advice.

Zipp frequently reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

P.S. BE ELEVEN

By Rita Williams-Garcia

Amistad. 274 p. $16.99. Ages 8-12

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