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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Belton, Sandra McKendree; Greenwillow Books, 2000. 262p
ISBN 0-688-15950-8   $15.95    Gr. 7-10

Sandra Belton is a writer of, among other things, historical novels set in mid-twentieth century America. Her Ernestine and Amanda series (four books to date) focuses on two girls growing up in a solidly middle-class African-American community in the 1950s. Belton's light and loving touch in depicting the titular characters' often adversarial relationship provides the emotional core of her books. That light and loving touch is in strong evidence in her latest work.

This understated novel opens with fourteen-year-old Tilara Haynes taking the train to see her aunt Cloelle in West Virginia. It is the summer of 1948, and Tilara is looking forward to the coming weeks, free from the supervision of her stern, loving minister father. Mr. Morris, the train porter, serves the girl her breakfast in her roomette, saying, "My special service for every pretty young lady." When Tilara looks at her reflection in the train window, she can almost believe him: "Soon the picture-in-picture reflections of the window made it easier to imagine that she was what Mr. Morris had said: a pretty young lady. But in her heart she knew better."

The conflict in Belton's novel centers around something known but not often discussed: that color conflicts are not just interracial, but intraracial. Dark-skinned and dark-eyed like her father and his sister, her aunt Cloelle, Tilara suffers from comparisons to her idolized, light-skinned mother. An only child, the protagonist grew up in a house that is nearly a shrine to her late mother. Belinda Cross Haynes had "skin the color of cream, hair that hung to her waist in silky brown curls, and wide eyes the color of gray smoke." Her daughter has grown up listening to her father "say again and again: 'Lindy was what you call a beautiful woman. A truly beautiful woman.' Her father's words and the everywhere pictures told Tilara that she could never be pretty."

The novel unfolds slowly, like a hot summer afternoon. Tilara spends part of her summer days at McKendree, an old-age home for elderly blacks, where she joins a small group of local teen volunteers. The dynamic among the teenagers is tense with the additional complications of romantic almost-triangles and hidden agendas; the dynamic between the teenagers and the elderly residents is a mutually amicable one, the teenagers listening while the old folks tell stories from their lives.

Belton's omniscient narration shows who's what as well as who's who as March, the popular, light-skinned leader of the volunteers, makes a calculated play for Tilara, while Braxton, Tilara's secret crush, has an unexpressed yen for the light-skinned Georgia. The main body of text is interspersed with italicized sections describing the inner thoughts and feelings of key characters, a device that allows the reader to know that March thinks Tilara beautiful even as he methodically plots his ultimately unsuccessful conquest of her; and that Tilara, mistrusting March because of his light skin (and her own good sense), admires dark-skinned Braxton. Elderly Miss Alpha, former dancer at the Cotton Club, is unaware of her own prejudice when she favors the light-skinned Georgia over the darker girls. Mr. Reese, Miss Alpha's longtime beau, accepts the notion that light-skinned is better as well: "I wanted that same kind of girl for myself. The same kind of girl the white boys had. The kind of girl white boys been sayin' is the most beautiful in the world. They was even sayin' that to us by the kind of gals they picked to be in the house with them down on the plantation!" The juxtaposition of the elderly residents and young volunteers permits unselfconscious commentary on the value of light skin over dark, "good" hair over kinky, as the disparate generations find the places they overlap as well as the places they divide.

Belton's characters stand at different stages in their life journeys. The elders, their values fixed, look back; the teenagers, their values forming, look forward. The middle-aged caretakers of both old and young are aware of the values of the past even as they try to influence the values of the future. The heroine's summer journey has clarified her own values, changing her from a shy girl struggling with personal doubt into an increasingly confident young woman sure of her own worth. The memorable closing image is Tilara triumphant, "a vision in red," waiting with her father and aunt for the train that will take her home: "It was clear they were members of one family-one man, one woman, one girl in red. Their words and laughter floated around them. The girl tossed her head back as she laughed. It was music."

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
October's Bulletin cover illustration by Nina Crews
from McKendree,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Greenwillow Books



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