To stand on a strip of sand or rock or shell and to look out into the vast expanse of ocean is to reckon with a force completely beyond your control. The persistent wind couples with the breaking waves to induce a state of near-hypnosis that some find meditative and others find suffocating. If you visit the beach, you might pay heed to the tides mostly as a matter of curiosity. If you live by and with and in the ocean, the rhythm of the tides are as constant and familiar as the traffic patterns on your morning commute. And if you surf, well, the tide is everything.
If asked to conjure an image of a surfer, someone along the lines of Keanu Reeves or Matthew McConaughey is very likely to be the result. In The Only Black Girls in Town, author Brandy Colbert helps us remember that surfers (and families, and friends, and neighbors) come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Alberta lives in a Ewing Beach, CA with her two dads, and she surfs; in fact, she's one of the best surfers in town. She's also the only black kid in her grade until Edie moves in across the street just a few days before seventh grade begins. Edie, too, pushes back against stereotypes with her all-black wardrobe, combat boots, and black lipstick. Despite their differences, both girls take refuge in their shared blackness, finding friendship and navigating the tumultuous realities of seventh grade. And after they find a stack of mysterious diaries from the 1950s in the attic, they discover they aren't the first to feel like they didn't belong.
One of the most powerful forces in literature for young people is the ability to break down barriers. We talk about representation, and of course, this book brings loads of reminders of how important it is to see yourself and be seen as yourself in a book. The obvious answer here is that yes, black girls can be California surfers or New York goths, can have gay dads or be vegetarian. But there are other, perhaps smaller but no less important, forms of representation here. When Alberta describes her interactions with new people, she says
"Even people who don't have a problem with nontraditional families have so many questions. . . . I've watched Dad and Elliott talk to other adults about it, and by the end of the conversation, they always look like I feel: a little frustrated and completely exhausted."
To any child in any nontraditional setting, this kind of recognition is so important. To hear in a book that explaining is ok, even somewhat understandable, but it does make one tired - to feel heard in that way is like releasing a held breath. And yes, cover images are so important, but so are tiny elements like mentioning a sleep cap or putting lotion on your elbows or figuring out how to be vegetarian without being the weirdo in the room. Small, familiar acts made real in a book: that's life-changing.
Of course, this book is not only about race or family structures or differences. It's also very much about seventh grade and friendships and the tidal push-pull of adolescence. No matter how prepared you are with your charts and your schedules, the lived reality of the ocean is unpredictable. The very fact of the changes, the certainty of them, is part of what unsettles. When Alberta observes the way her best friend, Laramie, seems to be growing up faster than she is, it isn't surprise that things are changing that trips Alberta. It's that you can never really be prepared for exactly how and when the current will shift. It's the way you can feel and sound so grown-up and simultaneously still feel scared and small.
Like any middle-schooler -- and any surfer -- knows, success demands a certain sensitivity to change, a flexibility that allows you to shift your position slightly without changing your core balance. The tide will always be there. You can't control it, but sometimes you can ride it.