Delphine and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel across the country to see the mother who abandoned them. They don’t just find a mother during their four week trip, but also an understanding of their cultural identity.
I absolutely loved this book. In my opinion, this book deserved the Newbery Medal, not just a “Honor” title. If you like books about mother/daughter relationships or historical fiction during the Civil Rights movement, definitely check this book out!
I agree with School Library Journal that this was an “emotionally challenging” book. There are two threads that pull at reader’s heartstrings. The first is the girls’ abandonment by their mother. This thread is introduced to readers on page 4 when we learn of the young age these girls were left by their mother, “When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. I was four going on five.” This instantly sets up sympathy and conflict. It’s clear the girls have been without their mother but are now being sent to visit her for four weeks. The author maintains this tension as Cecile remains cold and distant towards the children until the very end of the book.
The other emotionally challenging thread in this novel is the racial tension. We are alerted to this racial tension very early on when Delphine thinks to herself, “The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people” (2). This racial tension continues throughout the book. The girls meet the Black Panthers, Delphine reads their news bulletins, and all three girls prepare for a rally. The girls develop a growing awareness of racial tension and civil rights issues, but at the expense of their innocence. The girls learn of the violence and unfairness that surrounds their race, and the author did this through the inclusion of true historical details such as the Black Panthers, jailed founder Huey Newton, and murdered Bobby Hutton.
Both School Library Journal and Booklist noted the strong voices and memorable characters of the three girls. One of the scenes that I found most revealing of the three girls’ personalities is when Miss Patty Cake is ruined. Vonetta’s insecurity and need for acceptance is revealed by her actions. Her shame at Crazy Kelvin’s comment and desire to be accepted by the Ankton girls causes Vonetta do something hurtful to her own sister. Delphine’s character is revealed in how she attempts to remedy the situation, “I grabbed Miss Patty Cake’s dimpled arms and chubby legs. I went after her cheeks and forehead. I scrubbed every blacked-up piece of plastic, wearing down that Ivory bar from a nearly full cake to nearly half flat. I scrubbed and scrubbed until my knuckles ached” (95-96). Delphine is again acting like a mother figure, trying to protect and remedy Fern’s broken heart. Fern reveals her innocence and need for love in how she carries Miss Patty Cake everywhere, but after the incident, we see a new maturity in Fern. She does not whimper or pout the next day when Miss Patty Cake is gone, but instead, “Fern no longer looked for her doll when we left Cecile’s for breakfast” (97). The author never said Fern’s heart was broken over the loss of her doll, but you knew it. The author let actions speak for themselves, and in Fern’s case, actions prompted growth in character. I really fell in love with these girls during this book, and I think that speaks for their excellent characterization.
Kirkus Reviews said that this story is told with “writing that snaps off the page.” I completely agree. There were so many memorable lines that had Delphine’s distinct voice. A voice that was sharp but metaphoric. Delphine describes what mother means to her in the beginning of the book,
“Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother. Every mammal on the planet has a mother, dead or alive. Ran off or stayed put. Cecile Johnson—mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner—is our mother. A statement of fact” (14).
Delphine uses simple, direct language, and yet by comparing her mother to a mammal in the animal kingdom, she reveals so much about her feelings towards her mother. Another line I loved and that reveals Delphine’s voice was, “We all have our la-la-la song. The thing we do when the world isn’t singing a nice tune to us. We sing our own nice tune to drown out ugly” (90). This demonstrates the sharp yet metaphoric quality of the writing. This statement uses short, simple words: nice, tune, ugly. But Delphine is making a deep comparison between music and life.