Review of the Day: A Friendship For Today
A Friendship For Today by Patricia McKissack. Scholastic Press.
You can’t help but like Patricia McKissack. It’s part of the human experience. One glance at her books or a gander at her titles and you’re sold. She’s a remarkable author with that rare ability to switch gears between folktales, picture books, non-fiction, and novels without so much as a hitch. But as with any established author, you can’t just assume their latest book is going to be all that great. I mean, sure “A Friendship For Today” is based on a great premise. And the writing? Definitely keeps you involved and interested at all times. And I am not going to stand here and deny that McKissack seamlessly works in historical dates and facts without jarring the narrative or that the characters leap off the page with a depth characteristic of her writing.... oh fine. It’s a wonderful book. Another hit out of the park, it seems, from McKissack.
It would have been bad enough for Rosemary to have to deal with leaving her favorite segregated school for the new unsegregated one she's being forced to attend. And then there’s the fact that her parents are fighting all the time and her father has hooked up with some floozy from his job. But to top it all off Rosemary’s best friend J.J. (her boy friend NOT boyfriend) has come down with polio right before the start of school. It’s 1954 and now Rosemary Patterson is going to have to attend Robertson Elementary all by herself as the ONLY black girl in her class. The kicker? She has to sit next to nasty racist Grace Hamilton a.k.a. Grace the Tasteless. Yet as the year wears on, the two girls find that they may have more in common than they thought. It’s an unlikely friendship they share, but in a year like no other, Grace and Rosemary are going to put aside their differences and prejudices, if only for a little while.
What I primarily liked about this book (aside from the father getting his just desserts at the end) was the nature of the friendship Rosemary and Grace shared. The title is immensely significant here. What they have is a “friendship for today”. Not one that would last a hundred years or a million miles. It was born out of hardship and convenience and it’s nice and all, but at the end of the book you can see that Rosemary doesn’t set much store by it. I think this might serve as an excellent discussion point with young readers. Does Grace feel the same way about their friendship that Rosemary does? Will it last after all? Has Rosemary doomed it by calling it “for today”?
Now I’m not a huge fan of historical novels that drop famous names hither and thither without rhyme or reason. McKissack doesn’t really do this though, and for that I am grateful. There’s a brief discussion of Wilma Rudolph in this title, which I appreciated, but it feels natural. Rosemary, after all, is very proud of her own speed and J.J. suffers from polio so Wilma’s story is absolutely necessary to the story. I enjoyed too the fact that sometimes McKissack moves the focus off of Rosemary for a little while so that the book remains realistic. For example, at one point in the narrative we hear that another black child is getting some attention, this time for performing with the local orchestra. This isn't a book so unsure of itself that it has to make its heroine the focus of every big moment and plot twist every step of the way. "A Friendship For Today" is at peace with itself.
I think the reason this book stands apart from the pack really comes down to Rosemary herself. I liked her. I don’t always like heroines that speak in the first person (and in the present tense at that), but you can’t help but enjoy spending some time in Rosemary's company. She's the kind of person who says things like, “I know Grace would rather not have a colored friend. And I wouldn’t have picked her out of a catalog, either. But here we are.” You’re rooting for Rosemary from start to finish. When she walks into her new school all by herself, the only black kid there, you’re just as nervous as she is. McKissack brings her troubles home.
To some extent I think that McKissack sort of overdoes the happy ending. Not only are all conflicts resolved and all players better off than when they started, but even the villains have been redeemed. The nasty girl from school that called Rosemary the “N” word suddenly does a 360 by the and gets her father to allow her fellow student into his normally all-white restaurant. The book also begins to speed up as the end of the story grows close. One minute Rosemary decides on a whim to enter a spelling bee and the next she’s in the high school auditorium in the semi-finals. I also wish there had been a Historical Note in addition to the Author’s Note for some of the more interesting facts in the book. At one point after the schools have desegregated, a child that isn’t doing well in the new system is sent “down south where the schools are still segregated.” The understanding is that segregated schools could sometimes provide better educations than their desegregated, biased equivalents. How often did this happen? Was it common? Rare? Enquiring minds want to know.
That said, it’s a lovely little novel. Relatively short (under 200 pages) with a likable voice and a strong sense of decency, McKissack is comfortable in this genre. Her Rosemary is everything the author was herself taught to be by her parents; “... proud but not arrogant, firm but not stubborn, humble but not subservient.” This is a book that does its maker proud. Fine stuff.
Notes On the Cover: Essentially what happened here is that Scholastic took one cover and replaced it with another.
On the back cover you can see two pairs of legs wearing jeans/slacks and Airwalk sneakers. Insofar as I can tell, wearing jeans in the early 50s in the American South was not unheard of. I believe Ms. McKissack says as much in this book. Still, it certainly wasn’t common and Airwalks? Weren’t they established in 1986, or am I just making this up? Obviously someone at Scholastic freaked out when they saw how historical fictionish the original cover was and they plunked this very modern and very overly familiar image on instead. The new girls look like models. That’s supposed to be Grace on the left? How’d she get such great dental care? Her family didn’t seems the types to watch their kids' brushing all that closely. And Rosemary wasn’t allowed to wear her hair down for fear of looking too old, but she’s allowed to sport a plunging neckline like the one seen here? You guys weren’t even trying, were you? You just got the call to take a picture of a black and white girl of such n’ such an age, you picked the models, and that was it. Did anyone even read the book? The old girls had personality, spunk, and the kind of charm that made me want to look at this book in the first place. Naughty bad, Scholastic! No treat for you. Do yourself a favor and reinstate the old cover the minute you have a chance. “A Friendship For Today” just disappears with the hundreds of other covers when you fail to do anything to distinguish it.