Great Illustrated Books

P.S. Be Eleven

By Rita Williams-Garcia

Amistad/HarperCollins, 2013
Pages : 288
Suggested Ages: 9-12
ISBN: 9780061938627

The Gaither sisters – Delphine, who narrates their story, Vonetta, and Fern -- are returning to Brooklyn after spending the summer of 1968 with their (formerly) estranged mother, Cecile, a poet who lives in Oakland, California and is active in the Black Panther Party. 

Delphine, the oldest, is eager to begin school, but like society in general in the late 1960s, change and conflict are reshaping the contours of her life. Her father is now romantically involved with a woman his mother, Big Ma, doesn’t like. Big Ma’s frequent stern warnings about “not making a Negro spectacle” of yourselves, now sounds like “oppression” to girls who spent summer vacation having their political consciousness raised.  The teacher Delphine was so looking forward to getting for sixth grade has traded places with a teacher from Africa, who shares lots of eye-opening information about the world at large. He tells the class that four years earlier his country’s athletes went to the Olympics as “North Rhodesians,” while there was a revolution under way at home. “By the end of the Olympic Games, those same athletes left the stadium with a new flag and a new name: Zambia,” Mr. Mwila explains.

Revolutions are everywhere, Delphine is learning. Both political and personal. She worries about the sixth grade dance, since it’s going to mean “trying to match steps with boys she’s slugged.” She makes a conscious decision to stop buying teen magazines like Tiger Beat and Seventeen after she realizes she never sees a face that looks like hers on the cover. Where are photos of the girls’ favorite singing group, The Jackson 5?

To process all these changes, Delphine writes her mother, asking questions and seeking guidance. In one of many funny moments, she tells her mother that Mr. Mwila is reading a book by a writer Delphine thinks is named Chinwa Acheevie and that once she finishes Ginger Pye, she’s going to read Things Fall Apart next.

Cecile’s frequent rejoinder is the novel’s title – “P.S. Be eleven” – a cryptic prod to enjoy being a kid and not try to hoist adult concerns – and pain -- onto her narrow shoulders. And there is real pain: The girls’ Uncle Darnell, their father’s much-younger brother – a year and two months out of high school -- comes home from Vietnam a very damaged man.

Williams-Garcia nicely balances these more serious elements of the story with humor. Fern, the youngest, adapts the Black Panther slogan, “Free Huey” to make more relevant demands. “Free Candy!” she shouts at a store owner. When the girls cut in line (in desperation) at a crowded airport bathroom, they declare, “We claim this stall for the people.”  

Perhaps the greatest strength of Williams-Garcia story is this: Though she’s writing historical fiction, her characters feel completely contemporary and real. Many readers will identify with Delphine’s struggle to make sense of the crazy world she’s been born into, even those born many decades after the Summer of Love. P.S. Be Eleven allows readers the pleasure of spending more time with the Gaither sisters, introduced in Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor-winning One Crazy Summer. It’s time very well spent.

Reviewed by : SC


If you love this book, then try:

Holm, Jennifer L. Turtle in Paradise. Yearling, 2011.

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Ninth Ward. LBYR, 2010.

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. Yearling, 2010.

Williams-Garcia, Rita. One Crazy Summer. Amistad, 2010.

Critics have said

"This thoughtful story, told with humor and heart, rings with the rhythms and the dilemmas of the ���60s through characters real enough to touch."
Kirkus Reviews

"Funny, wise, poignant, and thought-provoking, this will leave readers wanting more about Delphine and her sisters."
The Horn Book Magazine

"P.S. Be Eleven is a must-read for fans of the first book."
School Library Journal