Friday, October 3, 2008

African American: Last Summer with Maizon

Woodson, Jacqueline. 1991. Last Summer with Maizon. NY: Puffin Books. ISBN: 0698119290.

Eleven-year-old Margaret wishes that her summer never happened. On top of the stress of a possible separation from her best friend Maizon her father dies from a heart attack. Now with her father gone and her best friend off to a boarding school in Connecticut, Margaret faces a new stage in her life where she discovers news talents within herself.

Jacqueline Woodson’s short novel Last Summer with Maizon is truly a charming story of two African American friends during the summer that changes them both. The two girls learn things about themselves during the time that they mourn the death of Margaret’s father and when they are finally separated and out of their comfort zone in their neighborhood and school in Brooklyn, New York. Margaret and Maizon declare themselves as twins; however, they are quite different. Maizon is the bolder of the two. She is smart and is has won a scholarship to a boarding school out of state. Margaret in comparison is the quieter of the two; however, she is equally as smart even though she did not know it until Maizon was physically gone and Margaret was not being overshadowed.

The narrative is written in the third-person; however, Woodson provides a personal window into Margaret’s thoughts and feelings such as the loneliness that she feels when Maizon is gone and she has no one she knows in school as well as the feelings of Maizon when she tells her friend of the racism that she experienced while at Blue Hill. The short chapters read simple and clear despite the emotions that fill the pages.

There are subtle cultural markers seen within the story. The one that is seen is in the description of Margaret and Maizon’s hair. Maizon’s hair is in a short Afro while Margaret’s hair is long and is the envy of Maizon. There is also presence of a culture other than the African American culture. Maizon’s grandmother is Cheyenne Indian and tells stories to the girls about what it was like living on the reservation. There is also hints of racism seen in parts of the books. The first is seen in the story told by Maizon’s grandmother. When she was young and living in Colorado, she takes her African American boyfriend to meet her best friend from the reservation who responded with “’You can’t marry him. He’s a black man.’ I knew that there had come a point where I still called this girl my friend but we didn’t even know each other. Because I loved your grandfather and saw him as someone I loved. But she saw him as black and refused to know him” (p.52). Maizon experiences the second experience of racism while she was away at Blue Hill. All the girls hated her because she was “black and smart” (p.113).

Though there are subtle cultural markers of the African American culture within Woodson’s novel it does not subtract from this wonderful work as it only exhibits that stories such as this are just like the stories that can be seen in other cultures but still exhibit the cultural elements. This is a title that readers will enjoy reading as with the two other books in this trilogy.

For eleven-year-old Margaret the summer that should have been a time of youthful exuberance--sharing secrets and time with her best friend Maizon in their Brooklyn neighborhood--instead delivered two devastating blows. The first was the sudden death of her beloved father and the second was news that Maizon had been accepted to the prestigious Blue Hill boarding school in Connecticut. Margaret's grief over these losses, coupled with her insecurities about going it alone cast a pall over the friendship. As Margaret struggles with doubt on her journey to self-discovery she has the love and support of a cast of strong female adults. It isn't until Margaret begins a new school year and with the help of a sympathetic teacher that she discovers her own inner strength. First published in 1990 Woodson's novel is deftly written and she explores, with honesty and simplicity, issues of racism, death, the elitism of private schools, and friendship is this coming of age story. Readers who wish to follow Maizon as she strives for acceptance should read Maizon at Blue Hill. 2002 (orig. 1990), Putnam Publishing Group, $16.99. Ages 10 to 14.

Gr 5-7-- When her best friend wins a scholarship to a boarding school for gifted students, Margaret is devastated. Then, in Maizon's absence, she discovers her own abilities, including success in the smartest class at school and winning a poetry contest. Still, when Maizon leaves the boarding school after only three months, Margaret, Maizon's grandmother, and the other adults in their Brooklyn neighborhood are glad to have her back. Woodson quickly establishes the strong ties between the two girls and paints a vivid picture of the supporting characters and their surroundings. However, once Maizon goes away to school, the focus of the story blurs. Because Maizon neither writes nor calls, other characters speculate that she is finding the work too difficult because she's not the brightest student anymore. Surprisingly, the 11 year old's decision to leave is made without any adult input. Later, readers receive only a brief explanation when Maizon comments that many of the girls hated her because she was smart and black. Margaret's growth is conveyed through only two brief episodes at school, yet this is a major development in the story. While readers will certainly be drawn into the book by the warmth and tenderness generated by the characters, as well as the descriptive images of cinnamon-scented kitchens and distant trains in the twilight, the narrative gaps may leave them wondering just what happened and why, and whose story this is meant to be. --Susan Schuller, Milwaukee Public Library

*Read the Jacqueline Woodson’s continuing stories of Margaret and Maizon: Maizon at Blue Hill and Between Madison and Palmetto.

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