Yolonda's Genius Summary
Do all youth think more than the adults of their lives imagine? Eleven-year-old Yolonda Blue—Yolonda Mae Blue, as her mother Josie calls her when displeased—has a butter-rich mental life, and most of her thoughts, whatever their quality, get some action. Her little brother Andrew is no less a thinker, and he converts his insight into music—sound pictures of real-life routines and events that listeners find stunningly accurate. If any of the adults with whom they interact knew them fully, their big adventure might be unnecessary. Until then, however, Yolonda and Andrew understand and value one another more than anyone else understands or values either of them. Andrew repays Yolonda's faith with a harmonica composition that tells his audience of her heroism, and this public honor, together with the clear success of her risky campaign to get Andrew's talent recognized, gives Yolonda the courage to correct some of her thinking and become a truer friend to a willing schoolmate.
Six years older and many dimensions larger than Andrew, Yolonda is expected to look after him. The better she does this and her many household routines, the better their mother, a young African-American widow whose policeman husband Deuce drowned, can concentrate on her job as a paralegal clerk. Even while her husband was alive, Josie Blue dreamed big for their children. Impressed with Yolonda's intelligence, if unaware of her cunning, she believes her daughter will achieve college degrees and a prestigious profession, perhaps becoming a great pianist. She also assumes that the right amount of tutoring and cajoling will make Andrew smart in exactly the same ways.
After her husband's death, Josie is determined to give their children a good chance of staying alive and doing well, and that means protecting them from the negative influences of big-city life. When, on the same day, she learns that her children's urban school had a shooting that left a boy dead and that a drug pusher there gave first-grader Andrew a packet of cocaine, she finds a new job in a small town of a neighboring state and moves the family there. Having thrived on the big city's cultural assets, Yolonda, a fifth grader, finds the small town boring. Worse, she soon learns that it, too, has "Dudes" who peddle illicit drugs to children. When they destroy her brother's dearest possession—the fine Marine Band harmonica that their father gave him when Andrew was a baby—she beats them up. This, and a fancy new hairdo from visiting Aunt Tiny, win her certain respect at the new school, if not actual friends.
Yolonda is disliked by her peers partly because she has turned away Shirley Piper, a schoolmate who was the first in Grand River to show her any kindness, wanting, in fact, to become her best friend. This story features children learning many skills—harmonica blowing, cake making, hair styling, skateboarding, using dictionaries, playing Mozart, navigating public transportation, and more—and Shirley longs to learn to jump rope with the style that she has seen some of the school's few black youth teaching their white friends during recess. She will settle for "Teddy Bear," but she would like nothing better than to learn to turn the ropes for "Double Dutch." Because Yolonda is black and from the city, Shirley assumes her to be expert at "Double Dutch." That expectation, as she cannot meet it and is ashamed to say so, impels Yolonda to lie to Shirley, put her off, and finally turn her away.
Playing on the reader's interest in outsiders, as she does in Randall's Wall and The King of Dragons, Fenner dramatizes adroitly the icy cynicism and sarcasm that mockery can seed. Rejected by most other youth, male and female, black as well as white, partly because she is overweight—and having to tool some defense against this derision and exclusion to survive—Yolonda passes on to others the psychic wounds that she herself has sustained since childhood. In Yolonda's thoughts, Shirley is at best the...
(The entire section is 1,154 words.)