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P.S. Be Eleven: sequels and sympathies

At Heavy Medal Jonathan and I strive for discussion of books within the confines of the Newbery criteria.  Use in curriculum? Doesn’t matter.  Breadth of popularity?  Doesn’t matter.  “Importance” of theme or message?  Uniqueness to the canon?  Comparison to books of other years?  Doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t matter.   This is not to say these things don’t matter in the world, but when the Newbery committee sits down to discuss literary merit in children’s books of this year only, that is their sole focus.  Practice discussion sessions, both formal and informal, over the year help them prepare for their final deliberations in January, and that practice is important, as it’s not “natural” for many of us to set aside certain considerations.

P.S. BE ELEVEN is a perfect practice book for me.  It is a book I “lo-o-o-o-ve”, by an author who I greatly admire.  She has been honored by the Newbery committee before, and her title this year is a sequel to that book.  This title is very different in theme, scope, and arc-shape than Williams-Garcia’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER, though it does share a quality of rooting the reader firmly in a near-past time and place.  Is it better? Not sure yet.  Is it different? Surely is.

Ok.  The above doesn’t matter.  I will pull out one comment above though, that P.S. BE ELEVEN does a remarkable job of rooting the reader firmly in a past time and place, and that is something I think it does at a “distinguished” level, especially in comparison to other titles this year (to be compared: NAVIGATING EARLY, which does a very good job in this respect, but not really on par with PS, in my opinion).   Williams-Garcia’s novel feels equally an homage to early 1970s Brooklyn as it is to the three sisters: Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern.   The story is gently episodic; some very light narrative threads: the pending 6th grade dance; the father’s new fiancee and letters between Delphine and her mother back in Oakland; the emergence of the Jackson Five as a catalyst for an “old” and “new” ways of being correct in the world, symbolized in the tug of power between Big Ma and Miss Marva Hendrix.   All this might seem light plot for some readers; but Williams-Garcia remarkably crafts a narrative that *feels* action packed, even if it is not.  The action is happening at the character level, and is delivered in a lively voice with a keen sense of detail and of humor.

Now, the perennial “sequel-discussion” question.  Term #3 in the Newbery guidelines states that “The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award, as specified in the terms.”  This is generally understood to mean that the committee discusses only eligible titles, and compares them only to each other.  There is a difference in opinion as to whether this term also implies that book from a series, or otherwise related to ineligible titles, must “stand alone.”   That is, at the Newbery table, discussing P.S. BE ELEVEN, must we assume that even though the book is intended to be read as a follow up to a previous title (and therefore that readers will bring some knowledge of character and plot to it), that the book must achieve all of its distinguished characterics as if there were no prior knowledge, no prior book?   Or, can the committee assume that–as a sequel–this book depends on a certain amount of prior knowledge, and that it can be judged in that context?

This is more of an issue for titles that depend heavily on previous plot and character threads (such as Megan Whalen Turner’s work.  Who was here for CONSPIRACY OF KINGS?).   P.S. BE ELEVEN, having such a different arc than its predecessor, does a pretty good job of standing on its own, and catches the reader up handily in the first handful of pages.    I think that it does a remarkable job in characterization, in interpretation of theme or concept, and in appropriateness of style…whether or not the reader is already familiar with the three sisters.  However, I suspect that is does a *better* job it if the reader *is* familiar with them…and “better” does matter in the final deliberations, if titles are neck-and-neck in discussion.



Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I decided to wait until this blog got really up and running before I began reading this year’s contenders, as you guys are my main guidepost to the season anyway, so I cannot comment at this time on this book in particular yet. However, I do have an interesting anecdote/memory relating to “The Sequel Issue”. I wasn’t at the discussion for “A Conspiracy of Kings” (though I did follow the conversation online), but I did attend the year of “The King of Attolia”, and pretty much the same arguments were debated over that book as well. People like Nina who were fans of the previous books thought it was exemplary; I on the other hand had missed out on the previous titles and was oppressively confused the entire way through the reading process. However, that was also the year that “A True and Faithful Narrative” by Katherine Sturtevant, another sequel, came close to winning the same Mock discussion. The difference with that title was it could essentially be read completely independently from the book it was following up on, “The Sign of the Star”. In addition, “Narrative” was not only a far longer but – in this opinion at least – a markedly more well-crafted book than “Star”. I myself thought “Star” was mediocre-at-best while “Narrative” was delightfully absorbing, and to this date that is the only time that I have had such a refreshingly surprising experience with a sequel.

    So it appears that to what degree you require a follow-up installment to stand alone or stand up to its predecessor seems to largely be a matter of personal opinion, but when it comes down to practical discussions to have a chance at rising to the top of the field you need to be able to offer at least something of an equal experience to those who are well-versed as well as not well-versed in possible background to the overall serial. Whether necessarily ideal or not, more stand alone titles are the ones that consensus is far more easily built around.

    On a more personal note, for the first time since then (seven years ago!), I might be able to attend the real event this year, which is definitely something for me to look forward to. I checked here every day in August just on the off chance you and Jonathan might return early. Super nerdy, but then again, so am I. Let me add my voice to the yearly chorus proclaiming “WE ARE SO GLAD YOU’RE BACK!!!”.

  2. Interesting point about how previous knowledge effects the narrative. Since I can’t unknow ONE CRAZY SUMMER I’m not certain how this book reads to the series virgin. I would guess it does just fine. If anything it might go too far in the first few pages ramming in an obvious recap of the previous book. I do suspect without having witnessed Cecile’s character arc from the first book her letters to Delphenie may not have the same impact. Otherwise, I surely find this book hitting home runs in the character, plotting, and setting points of criteria.

  3. Even though I came to PS BE ELEVEN having read and loved ONE CRAZY SUMMER it felt complete by itself. Though I have to agree with Nina that there might be that extra something that having read the first gives to the reading of this one that takes it to a different level. I’m thinking in particular of Cecile whose voice here is that of a far-off mother urging Delphine to “be eleven.” There is certainly a deeper poignancy to that admonition if you know Cecile’s history. But the book seems to me to still be remarkably satisfying even without that.

    A sequel-related tangent: I’ve just finished Nancy Farmer’s LORD OF OPIUM and I did wonder if it was possible to get into it without having read HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.

  4. I was disappointed in PS Be Eleven — but only because I loved the first book so much? I mean, come on, it was totally Delphine’s mother’s fault that she was acting like a little grown-up.

    I loved being with the characters again. It’s hard to put my finger on what I didn’t quite like. The situations weren’t as satisfying, but I know that’s a lame description. I do love the characters. Not as convinced the book is Newbery quality as I was with the first. (Not that I’m comparing with the first. Oh this is hard.)

  5. I do think this is one of the most distinguished books regarding setting we’ve seen this year, and I would also make a strong case for delineation of character as well.

    Nina said:
    “All this might seem light plot for some readers; but Williams-Garcia remarkably crafts a narrative that *feels* action packed, even if it is not. The action is happening at the character level, and is delivered in a lively voice with a keen sense of detail and of humor.”

    YES! This is what really made the book stand out to me. It left a strong impression too. Many of the books this year I’ve forgotten fairly instantly. This one is lingering and is one I really want to reread.

    I also feel like this would do well on its own, particularly with a child audience. I’m actually attempting to test this. I can’t get my students to read One Crazy Summer. They are really turned off by that cover for some reason (which really matters to them). THIS cover has selling potential though and I’m actually going to be book talking it next week.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    ONE CRAZY SUMMER is a book that flirted with my top five all year long, but slid into my second five late in the year. I like P.S. BE ELEVEN, too, for all the reasons that have been mentioned, but I’m wondering whether it will fade at the end of the year. Did it bother anyone that the real Jackson Five concert at Madison Square Garden concert was in 1970? This book takes place directly after ONE CRAZY SUMMER which was set in 1968. Not necessarily a fatal flaw or anything, but if we’re going to go after Gary Schmidt for Joe Pepitone not being in the right place at the right time . . .

  7. I seem to remember Williams-Garcia giving a reason for why she used that concert, even though she knew it was the wrong year. At least I think so, but I don’t have the book in front of me.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think the concert was a great part of the story. I find it odd that Williams-Garcia went out of her way to mention that Big Ma would definitely not allow the girls to wear bell bottoms, but stayed mum on bending the time frame of the novel slightly.

  9. But, Jonathan, I think she does address it, writing in the Author Note: “Although P.S. Be Eleven resumes where One Crazy Summer ends, this sequel yearns to reflect the spirit of that period. I’ve exercised literary license to bring together events and details that reflect the happenings within the Gaither home, the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, and the nation.”

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    So if Rita Williams-Garcia gets to excercise literary license, then Susan Cooper does, too, right? Oh, wait–that’s next month’s discussion. 🙂

  11. I don’t mind the moving of the concert date, but then I also didn’t really care where Joe Pepitone actually was the night in question in OKAY FOR NOW. I’m more interested in a work of historical fiction getting the time period right: not having anachronisms, not interjecting modern philosophy, etc. If the author wants to manipulate inconsequential events (like concerts or where certain figures are at a certain time), I’m okay with that. I know not everyone is in agreement on this though. We probably all have different parameters for what is okay wiggle room in historical fiction. I would really hate to see this detract from what is such a marvelous creation of setting.

    I haven’t read the Cooper book yet. Reviews I’ve seen do not have me excited about it and I’ve had so much else to read it hasn’t been a priority. I’m looking forward to seeing that discussion though. (Honestly don’t know if I’ll get to it by then even, but will enjoy seeing what comes of everyone else discussing.)

  12. It’s so hard to try to un-know a previous book! I loved the first book so much that I don’t think I can be unbiased – though I tend to feel that it biases me in the other direction, since I had huge hopes for this one.

    I think the setting is excellently done, and the characters were sharply delineated. She does sibling relationships perfectly spot-on. Big Ma’s departure seemed a bit abrupt, and did not have as much of an impact on the family as I would have expected. They were upset at first, but basically took it in stride. (Though it’s been months since I read the book, so perhaps that’s my fallible memory.)

    In the end the book hugely frustrated me though, largely because of the father’s choice not to let the girls go to the concert after their money is stolen. I could have understood the “lesson” he was trying to teach them if they hadn’t been able to raise the money on their own, but having it stolen and then not allowing his new wife to take the girls…what message is that supposed to send? I’m not sure where the author was going with that whole subplot. Don’t trust anyone? Sometimes life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it? Delphine didn’t seem to really understand where her father was coming from either, so maybe it was just to show that life is unfair sometimes?

    • I would agree with the strength of the sibling relationships, but what about the relationship between Pa and Miss Marva, or Pa and Big Ma, or Darnell and anyone, or Ellis and anyone? Ellis in particular is so much a mystery to Delphine that he winds up coming across as pretty flat to me – his standing up to Danny felt a little generic. The theft of the girls’ money also felt predictable, with Darnell feeling like a plot device instead of a character. The day where Delphine is getting teased at school about her “dope fiend” uncle is heartwrenching, but could have been even better if Darnell had been a muti-dimensional character.

      Does the abruptness in P.S. Be Eleven – the introduction of the new stepmother, Big Ma’s departure succeed as an illustration of how out-of-control Delphine feels at eleven, or signal some threadbare areas in the plotting? To me as a reader the change in 6th grade teachers and Darnell’s disappearance did not feel as abrupt as Big Ma’s departure and Pa’s marriage, despite being equally surprising events in the plot of the story.

      • Nina Lindsay says:

        Amanda, I’ll have to reread these sections with this in mind, but I took abruptness, where I noticed it, as indicative of the 11year old persepctive. We really are in Delphine’s limited point of view, and we know how single-minded she is. There were certain things that she would never have seen coming…so we didn’t. And that let’s the reader be involved with the story, because we can be a smarty-pants and tell her…”yeah, saw that one coming…”

    • Yes, Alys! Those were exactly the things that really bugged me a lot. Big Ma’s abrupt departure, and not being allowed to go to the concert after all that saving up and hard work. Just wrong. Didn’t seem justified.

  13. Since everyone else seems to have read both books, I’ll chime in to say I read P.S. Be Eleven without having read One Crazy Summer, and I think it stands on its own. It was quite an obvious recap at the beginning, but I didn’t mind that. I don’t necessarily love this book more than others I’ve read this year, and found myself wishing it were longer and had a more active plot. This may have been different if I’d read One Crazy Summer (which might mean it doesn’t stand on its own 100%). Either way, it’s a solid book with great characters.

  14. I think I liked it as much as the first one, but then I really like “after the adventure” narratives (am a fan of The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well). It’s so satisfying to see exactly where the personal growth in One Crazy Summer leads them when they come up against more mundane challenges. But then, that particular satisfaction is absent without having read One Crazy Summer.

  15. Hmm… I read ONE CRAZY SUMMER and, frankly, wasn’t wowed. I know I’m in the minority in that respect. However, it means that when I picked up P.S.BE ELEVEN, I did NOT have high hopes. And yet, I really enjoyed it. A lot. I think characterization is better, setting is better, plot is better…pretty much everything is better than the first. I agree, though, that the loss of the concert was a real bummer. It felt too harsh to me, too. And the abrupt leaving of Big Ma, also abrupt. I’m in the crowd who enjoys and appreciates this book, but who doesn’t necessarily see it as most distinguished. It didn’t jump out at me as “possible Newbery!” the way some books do….


  1. […] P.S. Be Eleven, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, is the King Author Book winner. The book is published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. […]

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