Ibi Zoboi’s debut and National Book Award-finalist YA novel, “American Street,” explored magical realism and the voodoo culture in a narrative about a Haitian teen whose mother is detained as they immigrate to America.
The novelist’s first middle grade offering is not that type of story.
Zoboi’s “My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich” (Dutton Books For Young Readers), is as realistic as the grit on the New York City streets on which the story takes place. And despite the black and white of the title confection, it isn’t a story about color. It’s about flavor, or “flava” as the street kids use the term, and the kids who have it, and the kids who don’t.
Pre-teen Ebony-Grace Norfleet, aka Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, does has flava when she’s sent from the home of her cherished rocket scientist grandfather in Huntsville, Ala. (home of Homer Hickam’s ‘Rocket Boys,’ to which this novel pays silent homage). Yet it’s not a taste that the inner-city kids in Harlem would recognize and what results is not only Ebony’s regulation to the nondescript ice cream treat, but outlier-status to the Ten Flavas and a retreat into her imagination where she’s a space cadet on a mission to rescue her grandfather from a mysterious force conspiring against the pair.
About that force: Ebony’s grandfather’s work and education once deferred a sense of respect on her family in Huntsville, but that is called in to question by actions that Zoboi keeps cleverly disguised until the novel’s denouement. Now, it is those actions which set Ebony’s coming-of-age tale in motion as she is sent to live with her mechanic-father in Harlem. It is there, a place Ebony calls “No Joke City,” where he will attempt to school his estranged daughter in the ways of the streets he’s called home since boyhood.
But life in Harlem for a sheltered girl from Alabama is light-years away from anything Ebony has ever known. And by summer’s end, she’ll be faced with making the leap from a girl who lives in the stars to one who’s grounded in reality.
Zoboi shows real skill in developing character and familial relationships with this novel. If you’ve ever been 12, you’ll recognize and welcome Ebony’s story.
In the space of a couple of hundred pages, Zoboi fills the darkness of pre-teen’s upset home with the light of understanding, acceptance and friendship.