A powerful middle grade coming-of-age novel set in a slowly integrating upper middle class Los Angeles neighborhood in the summer of 1965, from a Coretta Scott King Honor Award–winning author. Perfect for fans of Rita Williams-Garcia and Sharon M. Draper. It’s 1965, Los Angeles. Sophie is the new black kid in a nearly all-white neighborhood; her beloved sister, Lily, is going away to college soon; and her parents’ marriage is rocky. Plus, there’s her family’s new, disapproving housekeeper to deal with. Then riots erupt in nearby Watts and a friend is unfairly arrested, and Sophie learns that life—and her own place in it—is even more complicated than she’d once thought. “Honest, witty . . . relatable. Unfairness and race-consciousness run through the story—so do surprises. Bigotry wears many guises. Kindness does too.” —Wall Street Journal “Thoughtful and well-wrought . . . . Compassionate, pointed, and empowering.” —Booklist, starred review “An impressive coming-of-age story.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review “Reveals how an impressionable and intelligent child learns from the injustices that touch her, her family, and her friends.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
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CHAPTER 1Mrs. Baylor
I saw Mrs. Baylor first. I saw her making her way up Montego Drive as if she was battling a headwind. It was Monday. She was coming for her interview for the housekeeping job. I watched her from the den window, and where Montego Drive curves like a kidney bean, she stopped, withdrew a hankie from her bra, and mopped her face. Then she blew a stream of air up at her forehead. I saw how she hauled herself heavily up the hill and that she resented that the hill was steep and that she had to worry about having a heart attack or sweating out her straightened hair. And I saw something else. She was a woman who was not going to like me. I wasn’t going to like her either because she was coming to take our old housekeeper’s place. Shirley was young and pretty and she’d taught my sister, Lily, how to put a smudged brown line in the crease above her eyes and white shadow just beneath her brow. And that Lily needn’t fret about her size-nine shoes because she’d heard that Jackie Kennedy wore a ten. Shirley kept up with celebrity news, too. She told us little-known facts that she had the inside scoop on. But she had boyfriends who came to visit her in the night. My mother didn’t like the idea of boyfriends slipping in and out at all hours. She had to let Shirley go. Lily sulked. I cried.
I left the window, slipped back into my room, and closed the door behind me just as the doorbell rang. Then I walked from one end of my room to the other thinking about stuff: How Lily would be leaving soon for college and I’d be left behind in a lonely house where my mother and father didn’t really care for each other, as far as I could see. I touched one post of my four-poster bed. I ran my hands over the books on my shelf, looking with pride at the dioramas I’d made of scenes from my favorite stories. I decided to ignore the lady who was now crossing the threshold into our home. I was picking up Anne of Green GablesI’d just started itwhen my mother called me. “Sophia, come down here. I have someone I want you to meet.” In my bare feet, I walked as slowly as possible down the hall to the arched doorway that led to our living room. I listened to every creak beneath my steps. When I reached our foyer, I stood next to the entry hall table, lingering there. I drummed my fingers on my mother’s briefcase. It was full of all her club stuff and charity stuff and art gallery stuff. When my mother wasn’t digging around in her briefcase, that’s where she usually kept iton the entry hall table. I waited there until she called me again. In the shaft of sunlight spilling from the arched window above our front door, my mother stood next to the piano, resting her forearm on it like a lounge singer. The sun was her spotlight. She had a Dorothy Dandridge kind of beauty. My sister once told me that was how she got our father. Now my mother gave me the once-over and introduced the new housekeeper. She had been desperate to hire someone quickly. Mrs. Baylor smiled and turned. Two gold-trimmed teeth glinted in the corners of her smile. She lowered her head but kept her eyes glued on me. “And who’s this young lady?” she said in a singsongy way. “Sophie,” I said. “Sophia,” my mother corrected. “Ah, like Sophia Loren,” Mrs. Baylor said, her smile growing wider. She dabbed at her forehead with her balled-up tissue and I noticed an odd scar on her wrist. Triangular, with a slightly raised border and a smooth shining center. I looked at it for a second, then quickly looked away. It was impolite to stare at a person’s disfigurement. Yep. She wasn’t going to like me. I could stand on my head and blow bubbles out of my ears, and she wouldn’t be impressed. She smiled and smiled at me now, but I didn’t believe in that smile for a second.
One evening a week or so later, I went into the kitchen to get a handful of Oreos to eat in front of Gidget. My best friend, Jennifer, was over and Gidget was our favorite TV show. My mother was off at her art gallery organizing a new exhibit, Lily was out with her friends, and my father was probably at his office. Mrs. Baylor was sitting at the table sipping coffee with a pile of laundry in a basket on the floor next to her. She seemed to be taking a little rest before tackling it. Let me explain about Jennifer. See, we moved to Montego Drive in the spring. Before that, we lived on Sixth Avenue near Adams. We were the first colored family on this block, and for the first few weeks we were very aware of our “coloredness” every time we stepped out the front door. Everybody ignored us, but we knew we were annoying them big time just by being colored and living so close. The kids who rode by on their bikes or on their skates glanced over with curiositybut they kept going. The first Saturday in our new house I could see a bunch of girls down the street jumping rope, but they were acting as if I wasn’t there. I decided to mosey on down. Put my face in front of them and see what happened. They probably expected me to keep walking, but I stopped. The two girls turning the rope kept it going and the jumper kept jumpingmaking a point of ignoring me. “Can I jump?” I asked one turner, noticing she had on a top with a satin fish that was really a pocket. I wished I had that shirt. “No,” she said without looking at me. “Why?” “We have enough people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how many jump.” “We have enough,” the other turner said. I spun on my heels and made myself believe that they said no because they really did have enough people. That could be it. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t the truth.
Then a week after we moved in, Jennifer popped up on my porch looking shy but friendly. She lived directly across the street in a two-story house that looked just like a Father Knows Best house. I always wanted to live in a Father Knows Best house. She had red hair and a nose that I call short and she calls pug. She invited me over and we discovered we had everything in common. She was twelve, soon to be thirteen, and going into the ninth grade because she had skipped a grade, and I was twelve, soon to be thirteen, and going into the ninth grade because I had skipped a grade. We both loved the Beatlesespecially Paul, if we had to chooseand we were still in undershirts, though we both had started our journey toward brassieres. And we loved to read. Me, only real stuff, no fantasy. Definitely no talking animals. We were going to be like Kim and Ursula from our favorite movie, Bye Bye Birdie. And to seal our friendship, when school started, we’d have to skip classat least once. We were going to meet at the flagpole in front of my school at lunchtimeI didn’t know how she was going to get there from her private girls’ school across townand then walk on down to that café next to the Leimert Theater, where we were going to order coffee and a Danish and then buy tickets for the double feature. We planned to wait until they were showing something with Doris Day. Jennifer didn’t have to have a housekeeper. She had a grandmother who lived with her. The grandmother had come all the way from England. She did all the stuff a housekeeper usually did, because Jennifer had a working mother, just like me. Jennifer’s school year ended way before mine did. By the time I got out for the summer, she’d already been to England and back with her mother and grandmother. She returned with an idea to have some fun with the people on our block she suspected of being prejudiced. One afternoon, she pointed out the houses on the block where she thought colored people weren’t allowed (unless they were the day workers or the handymen). She’d heard her mother discussing this with her grandmother a while back, though she didn’t say how they knew. I looked at the houses. They seemed quiet and normal. Jennifer wanted to pull a joke on the prejudiced people in those houses. She came up with a fake fundraiser. The scheme was to present a collection for poor kids in China, just so we could see their reaction to me standing there beside Jennifer. With our plan all set, we went from one prejudiced house to another, ready to talk about our fake fundraiser. We were soon disappointed. Only Mrs. Cantrell was home. She was an older womandivorced, Jennifer thoughtwith her mouth set in a permanent downturn, as if she was suspicious of everything and everyone. Jennifer had an order form pad from when her school had sold wrapping paper and her mother was the head of the PTA. “We’re not taking anyone’s money. We’re just taking orders for wrapping paper,” she had explained to me earlier. So, when Mrs. Prejudiced Cantrell opened her door, Jennifer began her spiel about poor kids in China and her school’s fundraiser. Summer school fundraiser. She had to correct herself because it was July. So would Mrs. Cantrell please donate? There was a long, suspicious-sounding sigh, then an “Oh, I guess so . . .” Mrs. Cantrell disappeared into her house and came back with a five-dollar bill, fresh from her pocketbook, I imagined. She looked at me and pursed her lips with distaste. Jennifer filled out the form for one roll of birthday wrap and handed Mrs. Cantrell the carbon copy. “We’re not taking money until we deliver your order,” she said. Mrs. Cantrell stuck the five dollars in her apron pocket and sighed again. “Thank you so much,” Jennifer said, turning away and starting down the porch stairs with me in tow. “Oh, I forgot,” she added just before Mrs. Cantrell could close her door. “Half of your donation goes to civil rights for colored people in the South. So they can get their rights. They’re going to be really happy with your contribution.” I looked at Jennifer with eyes round with shock. My mouth was ready to drop open! Then I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. I glanced over at her as we walked on to the next house and saw her beaming with pleasure. Since no one else was home, there were no more opportunities for our scheme. But I knew I had a friend in Jennifer.
I could feel Mrs. Baylor’s eyes following me around as I went about the business of getting the Oreos and a napkin to wrap them in. Finally, she took a long drag off her cigarette and squinted at the smoke curling off it. “You want to know something?” she said, her voice startling me as it broke through the uneasy silence. “I’m goin’ to tell you something that’s goin’ to shock you, but I’m goin’ to tell you anyway, ’cause you need to hear it. And you can tell your mama if you want to, but it’s the truth.” (She said “truth” like trood.) She was probably counting on me not to say anything at all to my mother. I folded the napkin around the cookies and shoved them into my pocket and waited for the truth she was about to tell me. “You know, with your light skin and that long braid you got hangin’ down your back . . . If you ever went to Africa, they’d kill you. It wouldn’t be right, but they would.” I stood there speechless. “Yeah,” she went on. “They don’t like no light-skin Negroes in Africa. Just in case you thinkin’ you special because of your color.” I frowned because I didn’t think I was special because of my color. I hardly ever remembered my light color. “That’s right. You might not believe me, but they hate light-skin Negroes in Africa.” She said the word in three distinct syllables: Ah-fri-cah. I stood there waiting to be released from this lecture. I wanted to tell her the word was skinned, not skin. I wanted to, but then I thought she might get a notion to spit in my food. She might get a notion to spit in my food for a solid week. She’d think I was a showoff and that I wasn’t respectful, and that I was precocious. Some people didn’t like precocious kids. And that’s what I was, according to my fourth grade teacher, way back when I was nine. In fact, she was the first person to use that word about me. She’d had my parents come in to discuss skipping me to sixth grade. “Sophia is precocious. Her writing is way beyond her years, in fact. She has an extensive vocabulary and a keen use of language.” My mind stopped on the word keen. How sharp it sounded. My parents smiled in a way that signaled she needn’t go on. They already knew all of this about me. “But she’s a little withdrawn, as well, I should mention. Maybe a little too self-contained.” They frowned, and that visit led to this: “Do you like school, Sophia?” my father had asked. “Mostly,” I said. “Well, what do you like about it?” “Reading biographies.” A pause here where my mother and father looked at each other, then at me. “Do you like being with friends?” I had to stop and think because I had only one friend back then, and she was more of an acquaintance. Millicent. We had the same love of reading at every opportunity, so we sometimes ate lunch together. We would just sit on the bench and read while others played around us. My mother was appalled at the news of just one friend. She had many, many friends. Lily had many, many friends. My mother looked at me as if I had suddenly grown horns, as though I had turned into someone who wasn’t her child at all. How could I disappoint her like that?
I waited for Mrs. Baylor’s final words. But she seemed to be done. She wanted me to be sad, so I bowed my head a little. I could have told her I hardly ever think of being light, but she wouldn’t have believed me. As I walked quietly out of the room, she took what seemed to be a long, satisfying drag on her cigarette. She’d gotten me told. As Lily had explained it, we were light skinned on purpose. Light-skinned people deliberately married other light-skinned people so they’d have light-skinned children. (“I’m not doing that. It’s pathetic,” Lily had said, and I believed her.) And they were the ones who’d gotten most of the opportunities. White people had made sure of this. Lily always had profound things to say. Things that made you think and think with your eyes squinted; things that made you see the world in a whole new way. So I knew then that Mrs. Baylor would probably prefer working for Jennifer’s family over working for a light-skinned family who’d gotten all the opportunities. I told Jennifer what Mrs. Baylor said as soon as I’d settled in the beanbag chair next to the couch. I handed her some Oreos. “Guess what Mrs. Baylor said to me?” “What?” “She said if I went to Africa, they’d kill me for being light skinned.” Jennifer’s eyes got big. “They would?” “She said they don’t like light-skinned Negroes in Africa.” “They don’t? How come?” I shrugged. What did I know about Africa? It occurred to me then that Mrs. Baylor would never tell Jennifer that. We unscrewed our Oreos and raked our bottom teeth across the filling. Then we laughed for no reason at all.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Mrs. Baylor 1
Chapter 2 Lily 13
Chapter 3 The Bakers 21
Chapter 4 The Rest of Saturday 31
Chapter 5 She Got It! 52
Chapter 6 Mrs. Baylor's Room 57
Chapter 7 The Mansfields 71
Chapter 8 Transfiguration 87
Chapter 9 Marcia Stevens 106
Chapt-er 10 Don't Pass This Way 120
Chapter 11 The Beginning 134
Chapter 12 Tennis 141
Chapter 13 Suspicion 158
Chapter 14 China Cup 161
Chapter 15 Recital 173
Chapter 16 Once a Little Girl (and Before That, a Baby) 185
Chapter 17 Beach 198
Chapter 18 Something That Happens 214
Chapter 19 Letter 228
Chapter 20 Auditions 250
Chapter 21 Peach Preserves 260
Chapter 22 It All Comes Down to This 268
Chapter 23 Watts Rebellion 278
Chapter 24 Where's Nathan? 291
Chapter 25 Nathan's Words 313
Chapter 26 The La Brea Tar Pits 322
Chapter 27 Really Over 328
Chapter 28 Another Sunday 342
Chapter 29 So Long, Lily 351