PS Be Eleven Title: P.S. Be Eleven

Author: Rita Williams-Garcia

Genre: Historical, Middle Grade, POC

Publisher: Amistad
Publication date: May 21st 2013
Hardcover: 288 pages

In this exquisite sequel to the New York Times bestseller One Crazy Summer, the Gaither sisters return to Brooklyn and find that changes large and small have come to their home.

After spending the summer in Oakland with their mother and the Black Panthers, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern arrive home with a newfound streak of independence, and the sisters aren’t the only ones who have changed. Now Pa has a girlfriend. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam a different man. But Big Ma still expects Delphine to keep her sisters in line. That’s much harder now that Vonetta and Fern refuse to be bossed around. Besides her sisters, Delphine’s got plenty of other things to worry about-like starting sixth grade, being the tallest girl in her class, and dreading the upcoming school dance (her first). The one person she confides in is her mother, Cecile. Through letters, Delphine pours her heart out and receives some constant advice: to be eleven while she can.

The sequel to the Newbery Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Award winner One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven stands on its own as a funny, moving story of three sisters coming of age in the turbulent 1960s.

Stand alone or series: Sequel to One Crazy Summer

How did I get this book: I got a signed review copy at BEA

Format (e- or p-): print

Why did I read this book: I absolutely adored the award-winning One Crazy Summer which is one of my favourite books of all time.

Review:

A couple of years ago I read One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia and that was a huge turning point for me. That was a book that cemented a few things in my head: that Middle Grade books are awesome, that they don’t need to be simplistic because they are intended for a younger audience and that books can include and talk about important issues without necessarily being Issue Books. I said in my review:

In fact, what strikes me the most about the novel is how the author successfully navigates the waters of so many important issues with the clear, concise, direct prose expected in a middle grade book but without being simplistic or didactic. Quite the contrary, I have found more subtlety and impact on this story than I have in several novels for adults I read this year.

I could say the exact same thing about its sequel P.S. Be Eleven.

Picking up right where One Crazy Summer left off, sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are on their way back to NY after spending the summer with their mother Cecile. They have changed a little bit: they have learned the meaning of the word “oppression” and that although you can’t always have what you want, you can always fight for it. Back in Brooklyn, things are not exactly the same either: their father has a new girlfriend and their adored uncle Darnell has returned from Vietnam a different man. Only Big Ma, their grandmother, seems to want things to remain the same, holding up the kids against impossible expectations, almost hoping that things will never change.

But you can’t stop time. And a revolution is happening in America and in the world as the sixties comes to a close – and it’s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements that Delphine and her sisters must learn how to negotiate their sisterhood, their roles in life in a coming of age story.

11-year-old Delphine remains the sole narrator here and it’s her mature-but-not-quite-grown-up voice that imbues the book with its soul. Growing up is at the core of this novel: when Delphine starts exchanging letters with her mother, Cecile always finishes her own letters with a “PS be eleven” to Delphine. Cecile recognises that Delphine worries too much and wishes for her to take her time growing up. Easy for her to say it though, isn’t it? Cecile left. She left and Delphine needs to deal with that fact and also with how her father and her grandmother always expect her to take care of her younger sisters and to be the responsible one. One of the most heartbreaking things about the novel is the realisation of how young Delphine truly is especially when she lets herself – almost without realising – be free to simply enjoy silly things like make fun of classmates and dance to the tunes of the Jackson Five. But it’s like life keeps coming back to pull her down. Disappointments – huge and sad – occur and are heartbreaking in their utter unfairness and injustice. Especially when they are chalked up to “lessons” one must learn. It’s interesting how that is exactly when the biggest lesson of all is learned: that adults and family are not perfect.

It is absolutely fantastic how the author writes those sections of the book and how the balance between the micro (small quotidian things) and the macro (what’s happening in the world) as well as between young-Delphine and mature-Delphine is achieved. Her heartbreak at learning that Merriam Webster is not a woman like she always thought is as heartfelt as the disappointment with her father’s “life lessons”. It’s all very difficult and imperfect and a brilliant portrayal of how it is possible to love family members even as your heart is broken by them.

This is also a book about how different generations deal with the changes brought up by the Civil Rights and the Feminist movements. They are exemplified in the differences between Delphine’s mother and grandmother, the two women as different as night and day. Delphine’s Big Ma is quite possibly one of the most heartbreaking characters I have come across with her internalised racism and sexism. Big Ma both fears white people and places them on a pedestal – she’d rather vote for Nixon over Bobby Kennedy because the former is dignified even though the latter will probably advance the cause of the Civil Rights movement. She objects to the way her granddaughters behave because she can’t bear for them to be a “big Negro spectacle” and bring shame to the family. And yet, Big Ma is the one who put her life on hold to care and tend for her grandchildren and son. There is unspoken but unquestionable love there. Similarly, Delphine’s mother is another strong, fully realised character that is never shamed for her choices – as much as they mean that she is not playing into the traditionally expected role of mother and wife. One of the best quotes from the novel comes from this brilliant, amazing letter she sends to Delphine:

Dear Delphine,
The green stucco house is mine, bought and paid for.
Mine to stucco and paint. Mine to live in.
The sofa I sleep on, the books stacked on the floor, are mine. Not all the clothes are rightfully mine, but I feel I have a right for them too. Like I’ve paid for them although I didn’t lay out a cent to wear them. They are still paid for. They are mine and no one else’s. They’ve conformed to me and can’t be worn by anyone but me. The palm tree in my yard is mine. Someone got tired of it, or grew disappointed with it and threw it out. I brought it home, dug a hole on the side of the house, and planted it where it would get sun. The palm tree tries to stand up because someone wants it. It knows it is wanted. It knows it is mine.
The printer is mine. It was left out for scrap. It was heavy and in pieces, but I lifted it. Got it on the bus. Worked on it and worked on it until I got the rollers to turn and the gears to turn. No one carried it and fixed it but me. It is mine.
My feelings about your father are mine. They are not feelings that be understood by a young girl. They are my feelings. Mine.
Don’t worry about these things. Study hard. Have your own things.
Your mother,
Cecile

P.S. Be Eleven.

No character is a straightforward simplistic, good x bad person and this complexity is applied to everybody including Delphine’s new stepmother, who is obviously a modern independent woman who is constantly on a negotiated truce with her traditionalist husband.

And it’s all the more remarkable because although the book is undoubtedly sadder and darker than its predecessor, it is still a book about three young, cute, lovely girls who squee together over their love for the Jackson Five one minute and fight over silly things the next. These books are amazing – and I hope the author will write more about the three sisters.

Surely one of the best books I read this year. IT SURELY IS!

Additional Thoughts: Cecile is a poet who writes feminist poems and Delphine’s youngest sister Fern is learning to write poem as well. This is a big sub-plot of the novel. As I was reading this book, I was gifted a copy of How to (Un)cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block, a poetry book: “A celebration of girls and women in a three part poetry collection that is powerful, hopeful, authentic, and universal.”

How to un(cage) a girl

Even though I am not the biggest poetry fan, P.S. Be Eleven inspired me to read the book and I really enjoyed it. So I will just leave here my quick, related recommendation.

Rating: 8- Excellent leaning toward 9.

Reading Next: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovich

Buy the Books:

(click on the links to purchase)

P.S. Be Eleven:

Book Depository UK

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo & iBookstore

How to Un(cage) a Girl:

Book Depository UK

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, google & iBookstore

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9 Responses to Book Review: P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

  1. Heidi says:

    Yay! I’ll admit, I was anxiously awaiting your thoughts on this one, Ana, though I knew it would be wonderful. I was bummed that I was unable to make it to pick this one up at BEA. One Crazy Summer is a book I picked up in grad school, for which I am so grateful, and I’ll certainly be checking this one out soon. I always find coming of age stories of this type heartbreaking in their almost-backward nature (Delphine needs the chance to be eleven and not the more adult version of herself she has been since her mother left). And YES to what you said about books being able to approach serious issues without being issue books. Here it’s done so effortlessly that you hardly notice you’re reading about poor parenting, the Civil Rights movement, racial and sexual equality as very serious topics until they’ve already infected you. Lovely review!

  2. Bookgazing says:

    I didn’t know there was a sequel – excited :)

  3. What a lovely, heartfelt review!

    Also, I’m smiling to see that you read the poems. So interesting that the timing was perfect. :)

    Kaz

  4. Eliza says:

    First: here’s some background/mood setting music for you all to listen to while reading the review or, better yet, the book:
    –The Archies singing Sugars Sugar (OMG, I couldn’t believe when that song was mentioned but it’s so perfect for that time – the height of bubblegum pop)
    — The Jackson 5 (of course) singing Who’s Loving You

    How much do I love these three sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern? So very, very much. I’ve read One Crazy Summer more than once because I can’t get enough of these loving, spunky and plain AWESOME girls. I was beyond excited, in fact I literally gave a jump of joy, when I first found out that Rita Williams-Garcia was writing a sequel and that it was picking right up where One Crazy Summer left off.

    These girls are so fabulous as sisters but are also trying so hard to be individuals. This new book, P.S. Be Eleven, really explores that part of being sisters. How you rely on your sisters and that sister identity but also how it chafes and you start pulling away from it at the same time. Watching them stretch and grow apart a bit but also reach out and hold each other tight when needed is brilliant and so truthful.

    I would love to have a discussion about their father’s ultimate decision about the concert tickets. It’s a hard choice and one with which a parent is constantly faced. Do you smooth over the bumps of life for your kids because they will face so many more in the future when you’re not there to help or do you start helping them cope with the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks of life? I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong answer.

    I didn’t get the feeling of bad parenting (okay, except for Cecile but even she gives what she can). These girls clearly are dearly loved by both their father and Big Ma. Do the adults always make the right decision or ones we’d make in 2013? No, but I feel like they do have the best interests of the girls at heart and are trying their very best. Also, I think their new stepmother will help them cope with the upcoming social revolution and allow them, especially Delphine, be the little girls they are. She already started by taking some responsibility away from Delphine and giving it to Vonetta.

    books can include and talk about important issues without necessarily being Issue Books. ” This is so true and, like you, I think many middle grade books handle this balance particularly well.

    Is this book wonderful? SURELY IS! Do read it and its companion novel, and fall in love with the Gaither sisters. While this book can be read as a stand-alone book, if you haven’t read One Crazy Summer, I’d recommend starting with that. You get a better sense of the girls and can watch how they start growing and changing and how they are a reflection of their times. Also, if you like audio books, Sisi Aisha Johnson does a fabulous job narrating the first book and, though I haven’t listened to it, I’m sure she does an equally great job on the second book also.

    p.s., I think you have a typo. In “big Negro expectable” shouldn’t “expectable” be “spectacle”?

  5. Linda W says:

    Rita’s books are awesome. Glad to see this wonderful review.

  6. Ana says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

  7. Ana says:

    @ Eliza: Yay! I was hoping you would come to talk about it especially this:

    I would love to have a discussion about their father’s ultimate decision about the concert tickets. It’s a hard choice and one with which a parent is constantly faced. Do you smooth over the bumps of life for your kids because they will face so many more in the future when you’re not there to help or do you start helping them cope with the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks of life? I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong answer.

    I hate that injustice. Although I understood his motivation, I think he WAS wrong. If they had been robbed by a random person? I think I could have accepted it better. But they were robbed by their uncle who was invited to live there by the father who KNEW full well what was happening.

    I think the way he dealt with it was almost EVIL. I actually talked about with my co-workers, most of them parents, and they were horrified at how he dealt with it. I think it was the wrong decision and I think Delphine saw it for what it was: an injustice.

    and THANK YOU so much for noticing the typo. I wish we had a copy-editor.

  8. Eliza says:

    SPOILER ALERT *** SPOILER ALERT *** SPOILER ALERT
    *
    *
    *
    Ana – I didn’t agree with his decision. The girls did live up to their end of the bargain – and admirably so. However, I kind of see where he was coming from, so while I think it was wrong and unjust, I can’t go so far as to call it evil. I think his decision was made under heightened emotions, which is never a good time to make a decision, and was informed by (1) him being emotionally worn out worrying about his brother and his habit; (2) his deep sadness and betrayal that not only did Darnell rob from him but he stole from his children; (3) reading between the lines in both stories there may have been issues between Mr. Gaither, Big Ma and Darnell where Darnell, as the younger brother, was given more slack and, therefore, Mr. Gaither maybe viewed Darnell as irresponsible and unable to handle the knocks in life*; (4) money was probably a factor, he now had to pay full price for the tickets and clearly money was tight; (5) he made the decision quickly, in the heat of all the emotions listed above, and he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who will back down easily – even if he’s wrong; and (6) a tiny bit of him hadn’t wanted want the girls to go see those “finger-popping hoodlums” in the first place.

    But, oh, my heart just broke for the girls. They worked so hard and anticipated the concert so much. Not only were they robbed, but they were betrayed by someone they trusted and loved. Even when you saw it coming, you hoped and prayed it wouldn’t happen.

    My heart hurt for Big Ma also. This is where she had to realize that the Darnell she knew was lost to her.

    *PTSD wasn’t recognized by the general public then and many people didn’t understand why the veterans couldn’t just “snap out of it” and get on with their life just like before the war.

  9. Ana says:

    You know, I think I have this deep-seated wariness about their father. I always go back to how he found a despondent, young Cecile in the streets and then brought her home – she always sounds much younger than him and then I always feel like he took advantage of her and that’s how they ended up with three kids. I was joking when I called his actions evil but I do think they were wrong. I do agree with you about all of his motivations – my heart just broke for the girls so much.

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