P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia. 2013. Amistad. 288 pages. Ages 8-12. Coretta Scott King Award Winner
Delphine and her sisters return from their summer in Oakland visiting their estranged mother, Cecile, to find their home full of change and conflict. Their father has begun dating Miss Marva and is acting like a teenager, and their grandmother Big Ma definitely doesn't approve. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam, but has changed and sleeps all the time, instead of finding a job. Big Ma is still upset that Louis sent the girls to visit their mother, and blames her for any of their perceived indiscretions
Delphine and her sisters struggle with living under Big Ma's restrictive and outdated expectations, based on her growing up in the segregated South and living in fear of racially-motivated violence. Big Ma just doesn't understand that Brooklyn is different. Big Ma and Pa argue more and more, about Miss Marva and about Uncle Darnell, and things come to a head when Darnell steals the money the girls have been saving to go to the Jackson Five concert.
Throughout all this, Delphine struggles to make sense of everything, and is challenged by both Miss Marva and her new exchange teacher at school to re-examine some of her beliefs and behaviors. Delphine turns to corresponding with her mother, Cecile, who often offers some meaningful advice. Cecile ends each letter with "P.S. Be eleven.", to remind Delphine she is not an adult and does not have to be responsible for everyone else, and should take time to just be a kid.
Another great story about the Gaither sisters. Like the others, this book is well-paced with wonderfully written characters and a very believable story of a family struggling with change and conflict, during a time of great change and conflict for the whole country, as well. Though still set during the Civil Rights movement, this story focuses more on the family's internal conflicts, as the father begins dating and suddenly re-marries, the uncle returns from Vietnam a different person, and Big Ma refuses to change with the times.
I liked seeing the relationship develop between Delphine and Cecile, with Cecile actually giving her some meaningful advice, though I did find it very ironic that Cecile kept telling Delphine to just enjoy being a child when it was her fault Delphine was put in the position of being responsible for helping raise her sisters to begin with. I also liked seeing how their stepmother proved to be a positive influence, easing into a mothering role and relieving Delphine of the burden of always being responsible for her sisters, and showing everyone that Vonetta could take on more responsibility, as well as advocating for the girls to have a little bit more freedom and make some of their own choices.
I did find it very hard to like Big Ma in this story; I found her to not only be completely close-minded, overly rigid, and heavy-handed, but borderline abusive. I was horrified when she smacked Delphine, hard, just because some white woman told her Delphine was rude. She didn't even bother to get the girls' side of the story. I get that it was out of fear for her safety, much like you or I might spank a child for running out in traffic and scaring us to death, because in the South it was dangerous for a black person to call attention to themselves or to cross a white person, no matter how trivial the offense. However, they weren't in the South and Big Ma had lived with them long enough to know things were different there. But I do think that was probably very realistic to the times, and helped set up some of the other conflict in this book and the next.
I would recommend this book to those who like historical fiction, persons who are interested in the civil rights era from a child's perspective, and anyone who just likes a well-written, thoughtful story about family, and particularly sisters. Fans of books by Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) or Christopher Paul Curtis (The Watson's Go To Birmingham) would likely enjoy this and other books by the same author.
Other Books By This Author
This is the second book in the Gaither girls series, preceded by One Crazy Summer and followed by Gone Crazy In Alabama (I hope there will be another!). Rita Williams-Garcia has also written several YA/Teen novels as well.