Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Title: The Only Black Girls in Town
Author: Brandy Colbert
Cover Art: Jenny Kimura
Publication: Little, Brown & Company, paperback, 2021 (originally published in 2020)
Genre: Middle-grade fiction
Setting: Southern California
Description: Seventh-grader Alberta has been the only black girl in her grade and town, so she is delighted to have new black neighbors when Edie, also 12, and her mother buy the B&B across the street. There is a lot going on in Alberta’s life: her best friend Laramie is acting weird and hanging out with a mean eighth-grader who always picks on Alberta, her surrogate mother is pregnant and has come to stay with Alberta and her two fathers, and Alberta isn’t sure she is ready to grow up. It is hard for Alberta to make Laramie understand that being black is part of who she is and that it is important to her, but Edie is not the perfect friend either, although she and Alberta find old diaries in the B&B’s attic and bond over the mystery they discover. The story is not only about Alberta’s growing awareness of her heritage and identity but also how hard friendship can be in those teen and pre-teen years, especially when two friends add someone new to their circle.

My Impression: At first, I was a little amused by this book because there is so much going on: a heroine who is the only black girl in town, gay fathers who met in a commune, a surrogate mother who was in the commune with them, aggressive vegetarians, mean girl across the street who makes veiled racist remarks, a new girl in town despondent about divorced parents – the only thing missing was teenage pregnancy, but luckily the three main characters are just 12. However, all these issues are a legitimate part of growing up in the 21st century, and while it’s a little over the top to throw them all into one book, the author did a good job of showing how overwhelming it can be to be 12 years old and confront all these concerns at once.
Laramie looks down at her cone, nodding slowly. “I guess I never thought about it. You’re just you. You’re Alberta. You blend in. I don’t really think about you being Black.”

I get that same tight feeling in my stomach, like when she was counting names on her fingers. I want to say that yes, I am Alberta, but part of being Alberta is being Black. And I don’t blend in here in Ewing Beach.

That is something else I know for a fact.

But Laramie is my best friend. I don’t think she meant anything by it, and I don’t want to start a fight. She’s been kind of mopey lately.

I change the subject. I ask her what she’s wearing on the first day of school so I won’t accidentally say something that makes me sound as annoyed as I am.
I am sure I too have innocently said things that were well-intentioned but made my listener roll his or her eyes at my lack of understanding. Laramie is not a very sympathetic character (although no worse than most seventh graders) so when she goes off with the mean girl, I thought, “No loss,” and Alberta tries to be a good friend to Edie instead and not to resent Edie’s constant complaints about how much better Brooklyn is than California. What helps build their friendship is one of my favorite tropes – the secret diary in the attic! Best of all, the author of the secret diary is named Constance and she has a Past that must be investigated!

The other thing I liked about the book is the secondary characters, including Laramie’s cute older brother, Alberta’s birth mother, and Edie’s mother Calliope, who is trying to rebuild her post-divorce life by operating a B&B. I know it’s just a coincidence but the name of Jenny Kimura, the cover artist, jumped out at me because that’s the title of one of Betty Cavanna’s most unusual books about a half-Japanese girl who visits her critical American grandmother.  In fact, the de Grummond Collection includes some of Betty Cavanna's papers.
Source: Library. The assignment for the de Grummond Book Group this month was to pick a title from this anti-racist PW list.  This was also one of my 20 Books of Summer.


Ellen Ruffin said...

Wow. What an amazing review of this book. I, too, thought everything that could be added to a complicated life was thrown in--even the kitchen sink!

I love your reference to Betty Cavanna. It makes me happy to see authors who wrote about diversity long ago. I haven't read the Cavanna book, but I am now. Thank you, Constance!

TracyK said...

Sounds like a good book, although maybe too loaded down with issues. It probably is realistic but hard for the reader to focus on too many issues? Based on the excerpt, the writing is good. The teenage years are very hard for anyone.

LyzzyBee said...

I find YA books do sometimes seem to try to shoehorn EVERYTHING in: it's not enough to have one thing, you have to have all the things. However, it does seem like this one calms down a bit and has some interesting things to say.

Buried In Print said...

If the story worked well and kept your interest, then maybe this is more a question of whether readers think it has "too many issues", cuz it just sounds like a Black girl with gay parents with a "hippie vibe". Hehe I think one reason why a story like this stands out is that many people tend to underestimate young readers, but maybe adults are the ones who are more likely to see the "issues" first and the characters as backdrop.