Zora and Me, by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
Zora and Me is set right around 1900, in Eatonville, Florida. It opens two weeks before our narrator, Carrie, and her best friend, Zora—yes, that would be a young Zora Neale Hurston—are due to start fourth grade. (Which is where I got 1900 from—Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891, so starting fourth grade would put her at nine or ten. Ish.)
A few weeks into school, on the playground at recess, Zora claims to have seen a man turn into a monster—a half-man, half-alligator—and when another man turns up dead (beheaded!), she and Carrie start to suspect that Mr. Pendir, the Alleged Alligator Man, might be the murderer.
Bond and Simon do a fantastic job of making Carrie and Zora's world feel old-fashionedy idyllic—the friendly camaraderie at the general store, the wonder of nature, the joy of free licorice, the pride in achievement (I especially love the characterization in this moment, too):
"Mighty deserving? What for? We didn't win any spelling bee." Zora smiled. "Not yet, anyway." She gave me a wink. She prided herself on knowing more words than anybody in the school — teachers possibly included — and knowing how to spell them to boot, but she never talked fancy without a good reason.
But they also don't shy away from tough stuff, whether it be the ins and outs of clashing with a parent at the dinner table:
Some people feel a child should not speak unless spoken to. Mr. Hurston didn't mind if children talked, so long as we didn't say anything he didn't want to hear. That meant the questions children ask when something terrible happens were especially out of bounds.
Or racism, from the everyday and non-physically violent:
It picked at my spirit that the surest way for Negroes to get along was to pretend we were only ever running errands for white folks. Didn't people like Mrs. Walcott think anything belonged to us?
To the life-threatening:
We were up against a force more powerful than white folks and more lethal than a gator king. The color of a person's skin alone could make one woman worth protecting, while it made another man fit to die.
Carrie tells the story from sometime in the future—while she writes about her own experiences, her understanding of other peoples' actions and reactions from a child's perspective, she occasionally gives us some adult context. For instance, here's Carrie on her father's disappearance:
The thing about not seeing someone for a long time, especially someone that you love, is that your memory of them becomes one-sided. Or at least that's what happened to me.
Some reviews—SLJ and PW, specifically—felt that her adult voice was too intrusive, that it would be off-putting to young readers. Me? I felt like it fit right in with the overall thread about storytelling, that the occasional moments that she let her adult self peek through felt entirely appropriate, and made the voice more distinct and solid, not less.
It's a mystery, absolutely—a murder mystery, even! But it's more about the power of story and storytelling, about folklore and how it grows and spreads, about parents and children, about strong friendships and how friends complement each others' strengths and weaknesses. It's about loss and grief, about divisions and disagreements within the same culture, about how hard it can be to know who to trust, about unfairness and about different ways of responding to it. The authors weave in tons of nods to Hurston's adult life and career—I have no doubt that loads went over my head, as it's been years since I read her—and has pretty extensive backmatter as well as an endorsement from the Zora Neale Hurston Trust.
Next up, maybe:
Eleanora E. Tate's trilogy The Secret of Gumbo Grove, Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!, and A Blessing in Disguise; Finding Family, by Tonya Bolden; Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes; Tru and Nelle, by G. Neri.
Gumbo Grove is set later than Zora and Me, but also features a mystery, commentary about growing up as a Black girl in American, and strong threads about family and community, and OBVIOUSLY I'll have to include the sequels, because I'm a completist. Finding Family is about a 12-year-old in 1905 who works to learn the truth behind family stories in order to connect more strongly with the past. Ninth Ward, because it was up for a Coretta Scott King Award the same year that Bond and Simon won the Steptoe, and Tru and Nelle, because it's a fictionalized account of the childhood exploits of two other famous Southern writers: Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
Lists and so on:
Award: Coretta Scott King Book Award/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, 2011
Award: Edgar Award, 2011 Juvenile Nominee
Award: SIBA Book Award, 2011 Finalist
Book List: ABC New Voices, 2010
Book List: Booklist Editor's Choice, 2010 Middle Readers
Book List: Children’s Literature Assembly Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts, 2011
Book List: Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Books, 2010
Book List: Notable Books for a Global Society, 2011
Book List: NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2010
Book List: US World Book Night, 2014