What a thrill to meet the award-winning writer Sharon Draper at the SOKY Book Festival this past spring. Before the festival doors even opened, we had bought each other’s books! It turns out that her daughter is a dancer, so she wanted to give While I Danced to her as a gift. And I devoured her deeply moving novel, Out of My Mind, which is used in classrooms all over the country to promote understanding of kids with disabilities.
Draper’s warmth and caring about kids and the complications of their lives is nowhere more apparent than in her middle grade novel, blended. Full disclosure: the subject matter of this book, the trials and tribulations of eleven-year-old Isabella whose divorced parents, one of whom is black and the other white, are in constant conflict, hits especially close to home for me. My oldest grandson is also a blended kid, with a white dad and a black mom who are not together.
So I guess you could say that I really empathized with Isabella who gets caught in the middle, moving between households and negotiating relationships with her parents’ new partners. Her problems extend to the outside world where she has to deal with other kids’ curiosity about her identity and the harrowing experience of being shot in a racial profiling incident. On their way to her piano recital, she and her older brother are pulled over and assaulted by the police, who mistakenly think they are bank robbers.
Draper never preaches. She just shows what life is like for a blended kid, and her ability to get inside the head of an eleven-year-old narrator is remarkable. Here, for example, is how Isabella describes “exchange day” between her parents:
It’s Sunday. I hate Sundays. I hate, hate, hate them. Even when I’m a wrinkled old lady, Sunday will always remind me of a worn, gray fake-leather sofa at the mall. It’s where Dad sits to wait for me when it’s his turn for custody for the week. Mom waits on the same couch on the opposite week. The stupid sofa never changes—just the faces of the grown-ups who come to claim me. I’m pretty sure my parents hate Sundays too.
Another admirable quality of the story is Draper’s reversal of stereotypes. Again, she doesn’t tell readers: Don’t assume white folks are automatically better off. She shows us. It is not the white mother who is the more successful, educated parent. Isabella’s mom is a waitress at Waffle House who lives with an affable, tattoo-covered redneck. In contrast, Isabella’s black father is a lawyer who specializes in investment banking and lives in an enormous house with a successful realtor and her Harvard-bound son.
At the end, Isabella’s story is a hopeful one. The shooting, as well as an earlier scene in which Isabella runs away from her parents’ vicious argument on an exchange day, provide wakeup calls to her parents. It’s clear that they’re making a genuine effort to get along better and be more sensitive to their daughter’s needs and feelings. In addition, Isabella, a gifted aspiring pianist who never made it to her piano recital because of the shooting, is reassured by her piano teacher that there will be other recitals. In fact, her teacher has entered her in a late summer recital for “the more accomplished students.”
In sum, this is a lovely book which will pull at your heart strings. Isabella’s voice is unforgettable, and blended is a hopeful, powerfully moving story.