I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the author of this book at a recent Highlights writing workshop. She was awesome. A faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Rita Williams-Garcia had a way of asking simple questions about your story that would expose profound issues. She was also phenomenal at the details…my story, for example, starts off with a girl stealing a diary from a woman. But as a reader, we didn’t see the diary until the girl had stolen it. Rita pointed out how the reader needs to see the diary, just as the girl does, zoom in on it, get closer to it, and then take it. Another writer had a car accident scene and we spent 30 minutes just taking apart who sees what when. The driver and the passenger both see the girl–but who should see her first? And who says something, if anything, and what do they say? And would the driver scream and then put a foot on the brakes or vice-versa?
That she is a master of her craft is obvious before you meet her of course, and this book (which is a Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award Finalist, and a winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Award–seriously, if this book had more awards, you wouldn’t be able to see the cover) really has it all.
It’s a story of three sisters off to visit a mother who left them while the youngest was still a nursing baby. The book covers so much: it’s a story of daughters searching to define themselves in the shadow of a woman who doesn’t appear to want them at all. It’s a story of girls from a rural town who find themselves in Oakland, CA. It’s a story of African-American kids who learn about a new kind of pride in their race as they are dropped into the middle of the 1960s black panther movement.
The voice of the main character is at once lovable and mesmerizing. She could tell me about canned soup and I’d listen. But she’s not: she’s telling me about a cross-country adventure, a dangerous political movement, police arrests and double-crossers, friendships and crushes, and a family that grows closer through it all.
I think any middle-grade girl, and many boys, although it’s more traditionally a “girl” book, considering the main character, would love this book simply for the characters and fast-paced, colorful story. That they would learn about an important point in American history, well, they probably wouldn’t even realize it until the book ended and you started asking them questions. Asking them what THEY would do if they were asked to participate in a movement like that? What kind of dangers would they face for something they believed in? You could also use the scene at the end, where the girls recite a poem, as an excuse to get your own daughter to pick out a poem that is meaningful to her. And then maybe she could recite it at the Thanksgiving table.
What do you think? How do you talk to your kids about questions of ethics and equality? Do you think you might use this book to introduce some of those ideas?