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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

Rising Star
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Sandra Belton

Series fiction books are a dime a dozen. It's hard to keep track of the multitudinous titles, never mind the quality of the writing, which, pardon my lack of subtlty, is usually not worth that shiny dime you paid for the dozen. Some series fiction starts strong but can't sustain the original interest level; some of them have an interesting premise but the writing itself doesn't support it; some of them are media knock-offs that belong in the recycling bin; and some of them are mind cotton candy, sweet while you're reading them but ultimately unnourishing and eminently forgettable.

When I received Sandra Belton's first full-length fiction title I was familiar with the author's name because of her two previous picture books, From Miss Ida's Porch and May'naise Sandwiches and Sunshine Tea. Belton's gift for storytelling was apparent in even in these shorter ventures. With Ernestine & Amanda however, Belton hit a stride that hasn't faltered yet.

Ernestine & Amanda is an involving series about two African American girls growing up in a solidly middle class African American community in the 1950s. The first book focuses on the title characters and their semi-adversarial relationship; in subsequent titles the girls grow older, experience more in relationship to their school, their families, and their community, and find themselves moving into the larger world arena. (The girls are 10 years old when the series starts in 1955; Belton says she sees the series ending in 1963.) In each of the Ernestine & Amanda titles, the two girls take turns narrating alternate chapters, each giving their point of view on the situations at hand.

In Ernestine & Amanda: Summer Camp, Ready or Not! the two girls go to summer camp. Amanda is sent to the upscale, integrated (though nearly all white) Camp Castle, and Ernestine is sent to the all black Camp Hilltop. Ernestine makes a friend, conquers a fear, and learns how to swim; Amanda comes face to face with institutional racism, and both girls come home with new points of view. The third title, Ernestine & Amanda: Members of the C.L.U.B. finds the two characters in sixth grade at W.E.B. Dubois School. Amanda has come up with an idea for club that Ernestine cannot possibly qualify for, but Ernestine makes friends with the impressive, regally tall Wilhelmina, and hardly notices Amanda's efforts to shut her out. In the most recent title, Ernestine & Amanda: Mysteries on Monroe Street, the two girls go to a dancing school founded and supported by their mothers, who are seeking an alternative to the segregated, all-white dance studio across town. While political and national events related to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement add both historical and community context, the core of these books is the emotional relationships among the characters.

Belton's own experiences growing up in West Virginia enrich this intelligently conceived and executed series. Her loving touch with her characters is one source of the series' strength. Belton says: "Ernestine and Amanda are the keepers of my childhood memories and dreams. Their voices echo the ones I heard while chasing lightning bugs and playing at twilight with the kids down the street. The homes they live in and the schools and churches they attend paint a picture of the neighborhoods that nurtured all of us. The events of their lives and the heroes they celebrate are the ones of our heritage."

This is a fiction series about two girls with loving and supportive families living in a strong, vibrant commmunity; in the course of the series, both girls experience the universal joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies of growing up. This is not unusual in the world of children's books. A quick perusal of library shelves will find, among the dime-a-dozen titles mentioned above, highly respected series titles by highly respected authors, books librarians recommend every day, from Cleary to Lowry to Naylor to Lovelace. What makes the Ernestine & Amanda series unusual is that the girls and their community are African American, and their cultural heritage informs and influences their voices, their lives, and their choices.

Belton speaks of what she and her fellows wanted from the books they found in their childhood library, and, despite its absence, of the magic the library still held for them: "The library was packed with folktales, fairy stories, and wonders of civilisations past. But what we wanted most couldn't be found in the stacks of books there. We wanted books about us--books with stories about black children. Volumes to assure us that books loved us as much as we loved them. . . . It was one of the few places in town that did not share such southern traditions as a separate entrance or a 'special' browsing and borrowing policy for black kids. In the library we were like everybody else. We could make choices from any shelf, and leave with a stack of books. The library, like my imagination, was a place for being equal and free!"

With the Ernestine & Amanda series, Belton has finessed a notable achievement: not only has she succeeded in making sure African American children will see themselves in her lively, well-rounded, characters; she has succeeded in making sure that non-African American children will see themselves, too. Any friend of Ramona, Anastasia, Alice, and Betsy and Tacy will be a friend of Ernestine and Amanda. Guaranteed.

--Janice DelNegro, Editor

Quotes by Sandra Belton from "Sandra Belton, Author of Ernestine & Amanda," Celebration Song:a Journal of African American Liberature for Youth, Vol. 1 (1/98) Simon & Schuster. Used with the kind permisson of the publisher.

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This page was last updated on October 2, 1998.