P.S. Be Eleven

P.S. Be Eleven
"She told me everything I wanted to know and too much.  It was too much.  I'd have to take it out one piece at a time to look at it.
"She said, 'Did I leave because of a name?  You'd have to be grown first before I explained. If I told you now, it would just be words.  She picked up her screwdriver and went back to working on her printer.  'Be eleven, Delphine.  Be eleven while you can.'
"That was it."
-- Cecile talking to Delphine in ONE CRAZY SUMMER
"Now the time has come no place to run
Might get burned up by the sun but I'll have my fun
I've been loved and put aside I've been crushed
By tumbling tides and my soul has been psychedelicized
Now the time has come there are things to realize"
-- The Chambers Brothers, "The Time Has Come Today (1968)
"Only days ago, Vonetta, Fern, and I were painting protest signs and shouting, 'FREE HUEY!' and 'POWER TO THE PEOPLE!'  Right now, the last thing I had was any power at all.  The only thing I had from being at the People's Center with Sister Mukumba and Sister Pat was the word for the opposite of power: Oppression.  The power to do nothing but keep my mouth shut. 
"I let Big Ma go on and prayed my sisters wouldn't start taking about the People's Center, the Black Panthers, our adventures in San Francisco, and most of all, Cecile."
In ONE CRAZY SUMMER, the experience of spending a month in Oakland with the mother they haven't seen since Fern was an infant significantly transforms Delphine.  But what does that then do to her relationship with the father and paternal grandmother who are her primary caregivers and who, in the case of their grandmother (Big Ma), has such a negative opinion of their mother?  How can Delphine reconcile her new understandings with her old life in Bed-Stuy?  How does she return to the way things were before that month spent around the Black Panther Party, before her enlightenment and transformation, as if nothing has changed?
So many young people face challenges in their lives as the result of their parents no longer being together, and their parents having radically different expectations and belief systems.  And this is one of those places where there is such twenty-first century significance and relevance to P.S. BE ELEVEN, a book set in 1968 which literally takes up where ONE CRAZY SUMMER leaves off.
There is so much going on in P.S. BE ELEVEN.  These days, I happen to be living with an eleven year-old house mate, and am frequently around her eleven year-old friends, so it doesn't require my thinking back to 1968, when my own sister was (just like Delphine) eleven, to recognize what a significant developmental age this is for young women.  This book is, in so many ways, Delphine's coming of age story.  But, like ONE CRAZY SUMMER, this is also a stellar work of historical fiction that immerses us in the world of 1968 America. One of the many things Rita Williams-Garcia does here is to cleverly draw upon today's headlines to provide readers a glimpse of those pre-Title IX days of being a woman in America:
"But Miss Marva Hendrix thought she was having a discussion.  She said, 'There's no better way to look out for families than to make sure the government remembers the needs of children, women, and poor people.  Who better to speak for children than women?'

"'The men who take care of them,' Pa said without hesitation.  'The men who put a roof over their heads.  Food in their mouths.'  He stuck his fork in his potatoes.
"'I know, I know honey,' she said.
"Sweetie.  Honey.
"'But sometimes men forget these things,' she said.  'They think about getting more, making their empires bigger, war.'
"'Tell it,' Uncle Darnell said.
"But Pa said, 'Some things gotta be.'
"'Some things gotta change,' she said back.
"They were talking to one another and not us.
"'If you ask me,' Big Ma said, 'they ought to stick to teaching arithmetic in schools.  Arithmetic.  Home economics.  Reading and history.  Not all this jaw-jerking about women running for president.  A woman for president.  When pigs fly over Alabama.'"
What a difference 45 years makes!
One thing that hasn't changed -- another one that Williams-Garcia tackles here -- is drugs.  Again, absolute relevance for 2013.
When I finished reading ONE CRAZY SUMMER, I accepted the girls flying home to their primary caregivers and going on with their lives.  But the insights that Williams-Garcia provides here, into the life and times of Delphine Gaither, make me want to know this: If Delphine could choose with which parent she'd prefer to live, what her decision would be?  
I know from my own personal perspective what my decision would be if I were her.

288 pages  Ages 9-13   978-0-06-193862-7

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA
Instructor, San Jose State University

ALSC Tween Recommended Reads  http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content/Tween13_RecReadsList.pdf
Delphine and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern are back from spending their summer in California with their mother, Cecile.  Now school is about to begin again and the sixth grade is going to set some big changes spinning through the life of the three girls, especially in the life of Delphine.

When a girl turns twelve, she has one foot in girlhood and one foot in the curious new land of being a woman.  For Delphine this means friendships changing, the Jackson Five coming to town, trying to make a place for herself in the class of a new teacher and huge changes at home in her family.

All the while the letters are coming in dribs and drabs from California and that mother who left her to claim a life of her own choosing.

It's the late sixties and the world is wondering where do women belong?  Where do black, colored, African Americans belong?  How do you come back from a war intact?

Told from the first person point of view this is a heartfelt and richly told story of family and sisters and finding out who you are, what you can do and where you belong.  From word one you will find yourself pulled into this place, caring deeply for Delphine as she struggles and stumbles and grows taller than most.  Expect to enjoy yourself immensely.  In fact you may not be able to put this one down.

Recommended by:  Barb

User reviews

1 review
This book picks up right where the other left off as the sisters return home to New York. They were changed by the events of their summer with Mom/Cecile and now they will continue with those life changes. Dad has a new girlfriend, Uncle Darnell is coming home from Vietnam (but is not the same man), and Delphine has many surprises in her sixth grade classroom.

I read the author's note and some other material about Williams-Garcia and I think she accomplished what she intended with this book. While the story doesn't read as easily as the first book there is still merit here. I like the idea of setting a story during that turbulent summer from the viewpoint of Delphine. This story is more personal. I could tell that the author was sharing bits of a real experience. If it wasn't her own experience it was that of someone near to her. However, therein lies the problem with the pacing of this book. While I felt the first story was something many could identify with because of that history of that time, this more personal story is a bit slower.

While it speaks to life experiences that are relevant today (family separation, step-parents, family members returning from war, and finding a place in middle school) the setting is not quite as recognizable to all readers.

I've encountered several books set in the 1960's during this past year. It must be a trend. I've also seen teachers use these books as a jumping-off point for engaging research to help readers of today relate to things from 50 years ago. I recommend this book and will be sharing it with my students this week.
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