Fuse #8

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

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.

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At 5:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the information..I have heard the name but never read it..after reading your blog..i would make it a point to get that book...I too write loads on friendship issues..drop by my blog..am sure its gonna interest u :)

At 7:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just picked this up. I hadn't heard anything about it but it looked good. thanks for the review:-) My reading pile is getting to be a bit overwhelming but this is one of the books on the pile!

At 12:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is up with publishers and crappy covers? Thanks for calling them on it; writers get hammered for whining about their covers. It's nice to know my own crappy cover is in good company.

No wonder I'm remaining anonymous, eh?

At 12:30 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

To paraphrase, "A camel is what you get when a committee tries to make a horse." Seems to apply to covers as well.

At 1:31 PM , Blogger tanita✿davis said...

I'm TOTALLY with you on the cover thing. Do they EVER read the book!? This is my big fear... the writer gets mocked for the cover, but is there any way we can fight it!? No... not on the first few novels, anyway, I was told.

I think the old one looks far better, and the girls are less ... pretty, you know what I mean? There is a relentless "prettiness" in the cover models of books for girls, and I think, especially since this is historical, they could have stuck with the first cover, Instamatic camera, less polished models and all. Well said.

At 1:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, apparently I'm the only person who thinks the first cover looks like a second rate textbook from 1985.

Do you know a single reader who would pick up the first book without some pushing? I don't.

Frankly, I think the more recent cover is a lot more appealing, and while it may not be as "historical" as you may have preferred, it's certainly a better piece of design.

having not seen the back cover, I'm curious: are you sure they're airwalks, and not converse?

At 3:21 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Well, the word AIRWALKS is printed in gigantic letters on the back of one of the shoes. I haven't any sense of style or fashion, so the only reason I was even able to come up with the word "Airwalks" was by reading it there. Trust me. These are Airwalks.

You don't feel that the first girls have a spark of personality while the second ones feel staged, dry, and soulless? Well, it takes all kinds. Scholastic, after all, was obviously of your mindset.

I am of the feeling that if a book is historical it shouldn't try to trick readers into thinking it's contemporary. Bad form all around.

At 4:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this blog!! Not just this post, the entire thing! I have been forever searching for some great kid lit sites, being in the children's librarian business myself (though you have my dream job location), and this one is great. I found you through Stephanie at The Children's Literature Book Club, great recommendation on her part! I love kids and read and review more kids books than the typical adult books. If only more people would take the time to do that, the world would be a more relaxed place!


At 4:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Put it this way: The girls on the old cover would have been kicked out of that sorority in Ohio, and the girls on the new cover would probably have been the ones to do it.

Which may automatically make the new cover more marketable, so probably nobody at Scholastic marketing is too worried about this....

Anyhow, kudos to you for fighting the good fight.

At 9:50 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree about the covers. I feel the second cover is generic "arty" while it's slightly more contemporary it's still boring. I much prefer the first cover, the girls seem to have more personality. It drives me nuts when the covers are at odds with the text, bait and switch, what the cover promises isn't what the book delivers.

At 4:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't care for either cover. Neither one makes me want to pick up the book, but it sounds like the first is more true to the story. Still, what's with the hot pink and scary green?

At 10:06 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Yeah. I may be with you on that one. Normally I rant and rave against sepia-toned covers (I'm surprised no one's pointed that out yet), but this one didn't bother me. The hot pink might even have been fine, but the neon green's a puzzle. Why green? Why not black? Mysterious are the ways of designers. We know not their methods.

At 2:46 PM , Blogger bb said...

I'm with you - the photography on the first one is so much better, even though it's more staged. The girls' faces on the first are so much more interesting. It was more visually striking. My biggest complaint is the typography on both! Either one of those covers could have been really lovely and popped off the shelves if anyone cared about the type. It's plain old lazy design to use a cheesy handwriting font for a book about girls. (The second one is definitely worse. What's up with the mixture of sci fi and craft-store fonts??)

What a disservice to a good book...


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