Trendy Tuesdays: P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

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It was One. Crazy. Summer.

But now the sisters of Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Award Honor book One Crazy Summer are headed back to Brooklyn, and with great gumption and independence, are ready to take the city (and school year) by storm. (If you haven’t read One Crazy Summer, you can read a summary here: https://neelysnews.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/winners-wednesday-rita-williams-garcia-and-one-crazy-summer/)

Williams-Garcia’s sequel novel P.S. Be Eleven follows Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern after their whirlwind summer with their mother and the Blank Panthers in Oakland, California. Life might not be quite what the girls expect when they return home to their dad Pa and grandma Big Ma in Brooklyn, but the three learn to adjust. The girls arrive back in Brooklyn with newfound independence and a wealth of knowledge of what is going on in the world, thanks to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. As each girl begins to embrace changes within themselves, their father (who has a new girlfriend), and their uncle (changed by war), and the reluctance of Big Ma to endure any change at all, narrator Delphine proceeds with some caution, always having the words from the letters she begins to exchange with her mother echoing in her ear, reminding her not to grow up to fast, to “P.S. Be Eleven.”

In her first book of this pair, Willaims-Garcia excels at offering readers a glimpse into the lives of these three young girls, communicating the chaos of 1968 through their individually unique, innocent yet humorous and knowledgable voices. Willaims-Garcia does it again with her second book, giving young readers a window to a more in-depth look into the typical lives of a young girl in 1968 Brooklyn. Williams-Garcia’s characters face highs and lows as they are forced to mature without their mother in an ever-changing environment. The greatest tension for the characters, particularly Delphine, is between having the knowledge and need to grow up fast, but the desire and spirit to stay young while they can.

Williams-Garica’s book follows a trend we see becoming more and more popular throughout children’s literature– chronicling the happenings of a time period or event through the story of a individual or group living during said time period. A most notable example of this trend can be found in one of this year’s Newbery Award Honor books, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which although a memoir of Woodson’s childhood, manages to give a new perspective on the life of a girl growing up during the heat of the civil rights movement, at time in which differences were exacerbated and hate was at its utmost. Another middle grade book that perhaps was one of the frontrunners for this trend was Christopher Paul Curtis’ 1995 novel The Watson’s Go to Birmingham- 1963. This book, a humorous tale of a close knit family traveling together to Birmingham, Alabama, manages to also educate readers on one of the most notable events of the civil rights movement, as the book culminates with the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963.

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P.S. Be Eleven expands on Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern’s story as they move back in with Pa, Big Ma, and now their Uncle Donnell who returned from Vietnam while the girls were away for the summer. Once again narrated by eldest daughter Delphine, the reader gets the opportunity to see a contrast between mature Delphine– the one in the maternal role of caring for her two sisters– and young, innocent Delphine– the one who lets glimpses of herself show with her classmates in her sixth grade classroom. Williams-Garcia adds another element to Delphine’s story as the young girl tries to grow up with two (or three) opposing maternal figures, Cecile and Big Ma, and Delphine’s new stepmother if you count her. This books does an excellent job of contrasting serious and comical events in the life of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern to give an at times troubling, yet undeniably accurate perspective of the coming of age of a young girl without a reliable role model. While the bigger message of Williams-Garcia’s book may not paint the most enjoyable picture, it is undeniable that the little moments that she compiles to make the story of these three witty, intelligent, strong willed, lovable sisters really make this book, though a bumpy ride, one worth reading.

P.S. Be Eleven definitely does not fall short of the standard set by One Crazy Summer. The sisters– whose story is funny and engaging, yet at times heartbreaking– continue to impress the reader as their lives unfold via Delphine’s words and throughout Williams-Garcia’s short book.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of a National Book Award finalist, and winner of the 2014 Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Award Honor Book, and a Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction.

By Lauren Christopher

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