Yesterday started with a plan, a plan for productivity. The gardens in my newly purchased home are out of control; left to grow with abandon by the previous owners and frankly, not at the top my list until now. Working in them is no easy task. The hot summer temperatures combined with the lack of rain makes the soil (clay) like working in cement. Just as I was about to head out the door promising myself to get, at the very least, the front area completed, torrential rains fell.
The book held in my hand to read during gardening breaks became my afternoon companion. As life would have it, a significant place in the story is a garden. Making Friends with Billy Wong (Scholastic Press, August 30, 2016) written by Augusta Scattergood is a slice of life into our historical past.
All it took to send my summer on the road to ruin was a fancy note and a three-cent stamp. The minute that envelope showed up, Mama was packing my suitcase.
Eleven-year-old Azalea Ann Morgan loves her mother and father and was looking forward to sharing a trip to the Grand Canyon with them. Gone are her plans of spending the remaining summer days with her best friend Barbara Jean. Instead she has left Texas for Paris Junction, Arkansas to help her grandmother. She is having a difficult time believing her mother's words that everything is going to be fine. Didn't her mother and father leave Paris Junction as fast as they could after high school? Even now, her mama can hardly wait to get on the road back home to Texas.
As Azalea is struggling with how she will survive weeks of living with a grandmother she hardly knows, working in the large garden, cooking and cleaning for them, she is informed other garden helpers will be arriving on certain days. Too polite to voice an opinion, this is unwelcome news for a girl who is uncomfortable meeting and speaking with new people. Life in the small town of Paris Junction in 1952 is about to surround Azalea.
Another recent arrival in the community is Billy Wong, great-nephew to the owners of the only grocery store, Lucky Foods. He's thrilled to be staying and working with his great-uncle and great-aunt so he can attend a quality school, one offering more opportunities. The prejudice, the looks, taunts and remarks, and vandalism, against Chinese Americans by some community members is a daily hardship for Billy and his family.
Azalea is pleasantly surprised to discover herself considering Billy a friend. Two people she would not wish to have for friends are fashionista Melinda Bowman and mean-spirited Willis DeLoach, two young people who come to help in her grandmother's garden. The one is there voluntarily, the other by court order.
Individually and together, in her grandmother's garden and out in the community, Azalea's and Billy's biggest trouble is with Willis DeLoach. What has made Willis so nasty? Soon Azalea has more questions than answers. She is becoming a seeker and keeper of secrets. One thing is certain, Billy Wong, Grandmother Clark and Paris Junction did not cause Azalea's summer to travel down the road to ruin. On the contrary, they set her on a path paved with the best things in life.
Books written by Augusta Scattergood make us feel like we've come home, regardless of our age. Her characters could be our neighbors, best friends or family members. Their joys and concerns become our joys and concerns not only during the story but resonating long after the final word is read.
In this title she alternates between the first person, prose narrative of Azalea filled with realistic dialogue and the poetic thoughts of Billy. These writing styles take us into the essence of both of these characters and the other people in their lives. Through their eyes we see the forest and the trees of this very particular time and place. Here are some sample passages.
Inside Lucky Foods Grocery
...Maybe I shouldn't climb trees to daydream in the
But high on a tree branch, stories pop wide open.
I tie the white apron around my waist and
straighten pickle jars.
Waiting to explode.
Onto the pages of the Tiger Times. ...
My grandmother had other ideas. "Help me to my room and turn on the radio, Azalea. Go read a magazine on the porch where it's cool."
Cool, my foot. I could die of heatstroke sitting on the front steps. But just in time to save me from boredom, here came a man walking the world's littlest dog, barking her head off. Now, I love dogs more than anything. Cats, too. I'm a whole lot better at talking to animals I don't know than people I don't know. But this one looked plenty mad.
In case I was attacked by a dog not much bigger than a rat, I backed up. The man pulled on a skinny leash and waved real big, same as most everybody in Paris Junction.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I sank into a soft chair that smelled like a rainy day. I tugged the desk lamp's chain to shine light on a book of old pictures. After a while, even though I heard the outside noises---cars slowing down, people talking---if I shut my eyes, the bad memories vanished into the room's quietness. I understood why Billy wanted me to see this special place.
Making Friends with Billy Wong written by Augusta Scattergood addresses the dynamics between generations, family and friendship within the setting of 1952 Arkansas. Her research is evident but the real gift Augusta Scattergood brings to us in all her books is her ability to make the past relevant in the present. In her author's note she discusses the importance of Chinese grocery stores in the South, the Chinese immigration to the region and segregation prior to civil rights legislation. This book comes with my highest recommendation.
To learn more about Augusta Scattergood please follow the link to her website attached to her name. You can read more on her blog. Augusta Scattergood chats with Scholastic Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read. when the book cover is revealed. You can read wonderful interviews about this title with Augusta Scattergood at Reflections On The Teche, Twenty by Jenny, and Friend Friday hosted by author Kirby Larson. A little more than a year ago August Scattergood wrote a blog post at Nerdy Book Club, Top Ten Things I've Learned From Kids About Writing A Book, you will enjoy reading.
UPDATE: Augusta Scattergood has designed a discussion guide for educators.