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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Woodson's Black/White Tale Pops With Life, Color

(Image from Amazon)
Once I asked Miah if he ever forgot he was black. No. I never forget, he said. But sometimes it doesn't matter - like I just am. Then he asked me if I ever forgot I was white.
Sometimes, I said.
And when you're forgetting, what color are you?
No color.
Then Miah looked away from me and said, We're different that way (p. 174-175).

Elisha ("Ellie") Eisen and Jeremiah ("Miah") Roselind have a lot in common: They live in spacious New York apartments; both are new students at Percy Prep; they're smart, serious and lonely; neither of them quite understands their parents, and both fear the dissolution of their families. When the two literally run into each other, a spark ignites; the spark becomes a fire and soon the two are spending every possible moment together. Since this sometimes involves cutting class, it's a bit of a problem. But not their biggest one: Ellie's white and Jeremiah's black.

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson introduces this modern Romeo and Juliet, who are determined to be together despite the comments, despite the stares, despite what's considered "appropriate" in their respective neighborhoods. Both keep the relationship secret, unwilling to subject it to the scrutiny of their families. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize how little their differences matter - regardless of the color of their skin, they're best friends, best friends who are falling more in love every day. Not only do Ellie and Miah have to deal with the not-always-positive attention of being an interracial couple, but they're also coping with family issues as well as questions about their own identities. Their relationship sustains them, but why does something that feels so right to them look so wrong to everyone else? Can a friendship like theirs survive in a world that is anything but color blind?

I had to laugh when I started this book and realized how much it has in common with my last read. Honestly, I didn't plan this. In fact, I plucked If You Come Softly off the shelf based on the author's name alone - I've seen Woodson praised so many times, I knew I had to read her. My library had two of her novels on the shelf - I didn't bother skimming the jackets, I just grabbed them. Although the stories are far from identical, they both occur in fancy, mostly-white prep schools, where black students feel distinctly out of place. Many of the issues are the same, but I felt Woodson's version so much more. For one thing, she creates relationships that feel geniune; peppered with easy, natural conversation; inside jokes; and the subtle nuance that exists in actual interaction, she makes it all feel so real. With seemingly little effort, she builds characters who pop off the page. They're ordinary, but complexly, compellingly so. Black, white, male, female - Pop! Pop! Pop! Maybe it's because the players are so real that this familiar story feels so fresh. Woodson also manages to make this quick, almost abrupt story, feel complete somehow.

Like Bil Wright, Jacqueline Woodson faces the black/white issue head-on. Her style may be more brash, but it's also more powerful. Now, I'm not saying I agree with everything she says (there are some definite white people cliches in the book); overall, though, I think she got things mostly right.

Whatever else it is, If You Come Softly stands out mostly as a love story. It celebrates first love, the kind of passionate, all-consuming feelings that glue two people together no matter what the rest of the world thinks. It's a serious, sad story, but one that is beautifully-written and deftly-rendered. Woodson's at the top of my "Read More of This Author" list.

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG - Although this book is mostly clean, it talks about issues (including a brief discussion about homosexuality) that are more appropriate for young adults than children.


  1. I ADORE Woodson. I liked this book. There is a sequel, so you'll have to pick that one up as well. Fantastic review. Funny how we pick up books and we end up doing unintentional themed reading.

  2. Jacqueline Woodson is probably my favorite YA author.


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