Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
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 "Shirley person," but usually "Shirleywhirley"—" whirley" referring to the way Shirley's small pupils move behind her bifocals when she talks. When all else fails, Yolonda forces herself to remember that Shirley is white and decides that they can never be compatible, not even at rope turning.
Upon hearing that Yolonda makes straight A's, an achievement that she can hardly imagine, Shirley asks her, "Are you a genius?" Yolonda is so pleased at the prospect of validating her hunger for knowledge, while perhaps acquiring the ultimate consolation for her size, that she goes to the public library to give the term extensive study. John Hersey's definition—"True genius rearranges old material in a way never seen before"—strikes her as describing not herself, but Andrew. She sets out to convince her mother to relax about Andrew's slowness at reading and talking and give him special training and encouragement for his musical talent. The strategy that she devises puts her brother on stage, to the surprise of all, with such Chicago Blues Festival stars as Old Johnny Shines, Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Fontella Bass, Oliver Sain, Koko Taylor, Little Willie Whitfield, Davie Rae Shawn, and, alas, B. B. King.
"This is 'Yolonda,'" Andrew says when the mike is lowered for him to announce what he will play, and his realistic improvisations thrill the crowd. Savoring this public recognition, Yolonda sees that she can do anything, even apologize to Shirley and at least jump "Teddy Bear" with her, actually learning that skill herself and enjoying the camaraderie that she has seen other girls get from it. That portion of her weight problem that might be correctable (she loves to eat, does so as often as possible, will nibble on hidden candy bars even in the library, where she knows eating is forbidden) is left untreated, but the reader can imagine this to be next.
The story's climax dramatizes the true occurrence that inspired it. From her husband Jiles B. Williams, a retired U.S. Air Force major and an enthusiast for live jazz, Carol Fenner has learned to love improvisational music and to enjoy jazz and blues festivals. Attending one of these with her husband, she witnessed the scene that suggested this story. According to Fenner, the seed for Yolonda's Genius was sown
by a striking person, a "lost child" brought onto the stage at one of Chicago's early jazz festivals. My writing was an investigation into the character of a big, capable girl on a vast stage in front of 60,000 people, a girl whom I felt was not lost. It was an exploration into how she might have gotten there—why she got there and whether it had anything to do with the little boy whose hand she held so tightly.
The result is a smooth blend of past and present, fact and fiction, that the ALA named a Newbery Honor Book and critics have generally applauded.
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