A "housing project girl" sees her chance to gain independence and to carve out a better life for herself and her son in the form of a spelling bee. "A chorus of highly authentic, lively young voices convey heartbreak and dreams," wrote PW. Ages 12-up. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Sixteen-year-old Raven gives birth to her son, Smokey, after a one-night-stand with a boy whose last name she doesn't even know. Now she seems destined to end up like her best-friend, Aisha, another black teenage mother on welfare stuck forever in the projects, rather than like her older sister, Dell, a paralegal in an upscale law firm. But Dell's sometimes obnoxious prodding leads Raven to enter a spelling bee that promises college opportunities to its winners. McDonald conveys the love between Raven and her mother (also once an unwed teenage mom), Raven and Dell, and Raven and Aisha, in sparkling, vivid, poignant and laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue. The scene of Raven and Aisha visiting Dell at her law firm, where Dell's well-meaning and likeable white friend Leah mistakes Aisha's nickname "Ai" as "Oi," is as hilarious as any scene in recent YA fiction. McDonald makes us understand both the warmth of the black female community in the projects and Raven's yearning to leave. Although the ending may be a bit too hopeful, few readers are likely to complain, as we root for this strong and believable heroine to achieve her daunting and difficult dreams. 2001, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux, $16.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer:Claudia Mills
Raven is at home in the projects, taking care of her little son, feeling like she is babysitting someone else's child. She should be in high school, following the path of her older sister who finished community college and has a degree and a good job. Her mother is so disappointed, because she too had been a teenage mother and wanted better for her daughters. Dell, the older sister, suggests a way out: a program called Spellbound, which awards the winner of a spelling bee a scholarship to a good education. Raven, who never has been a particularly good speller, nevertheless tackles the preparation for the contest with determination. This is a short book with many details of everyday life in Raven's home and with her girlfriend (another teenage mother stuck at home on welfare); their lives are contrasted with the home situation of the father of Raven's baby, a middle-class home. It turns out that Raven's baby's grandmother is a lawyer and his grandfather is the principal at a high school, definitely a different class of black people than those who live in the projects. The author manages to describe Raven's family with as much respect, perhaps more respect, than she reveals as she portrays the bourgeois family. Of course, we realize that Raven and her family hope beyond hope to find success and escape their lower-class situation to enter the bourgeoisie themselves. McDonald does well with the language of the projects, switching over to Standard English when appropriate. Young women surrounded by teenage mothers, or teenage mothers themselves, will like the inspiration of this story. Unfortunately, the cover art, presumably an illustration of Raven, will attract no one. KLIATTCodes: JSRecommended for junior and senior high school students. 2001, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 138p., $16.00. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Raven Jefferson had planned to follow her older sister, Dell, out of the projects after her high school graduation. But a one-night liaison with a boy she met at a party has changed everything. Instead of addressing graduation invitations, she is changing the diapers of her new baby, Smokey. When Dell hears of a "Spell Success" contest offering the winner an intensive summer study course and a four-year scholarship, she convinces Raven to enter. Spelling always has been a weakness for Raven, but with her friend Aisha alternately distracting and helping her, Raven begins to study intently. Smokey's father, Jesse, falls back into the picture amid her studies, but Raven stays the course to win the scholarship. The first two chapters of Raven's story lag a bit before the contest announcement and before Jesse re-enters Raven's life. The course of the plot is also quite predictable. Raven is a likeable character, however, and her supporting cast is interesting. The omniscient point of view allows the reader to see perspectives of Aisha, Dell, and Raven's mom, Gwen, as well as Raven herself. Although this book does not seem to capture project life and the weight of single motherhood as vividly as Connie Porter's Imani All Mine (Houghton Mifflin, 1999/VOYA October 1999), a good booktalk likely will have this one flying off the shelves into the hands of junior and senior high girls. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P J S (Readable without serious defects; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 158p, $16. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer: Mary Ann Darby
In this short, moving, fast-paced and often humorous story, 16-year-old Raven Jefferson, an unwed teenage mother and high school dropout "existing" in the housing projects of Brooklyn, is bored with her daily routine and fears the prospect of facing low-paying, dead-end jobs. Encouraged by her college-graduate sister, her mother-herself an unwed mother, and her likeable, loud-mouthed best friend, Aisha-who is expecting her second child and has no real future, Raven enters the "Spelt Success" program. Before dropping out high school in her senior year, Raven was a good student even a bookish one who planned to attend college herself. Winning the program's spelling bee is her way of out the projects, since the prize is an eight-week college preparatory course and four-year college scholarship. Readers will admire and sympathize with determined Raven, laughing and cringing at Aisha's antics, and wondering if Raven and the well-meaning and guilt-ridden boy who fathered her child will have a future together. However, most of all, readers will be left with hope! Genre: Teenage Marriage/Dropouts 2001, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 144 pp., $16.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Bill Mollineaux; Granby, Connecticut
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Sixteen-year-old Raven, a once-promising student in spite of her impoverished home and single mother's limited education, has been derailed by the birth of a baby conceived during her first sexual encounter. The father of her child was a stranger to her when they met at a party and doesn't know the extended ramifications of their meeting. Raven finds herself teetering on the brink of forgoing any life beyond her Brooklyn-project apartment, the baby, the only sort of job open to a high school dropout, and her best friend's brash "welfare recipient" influence. Then Raven's older sister hears about a college prep and scholarship program and goads her into studying for the spelling bee through which program participants are identified. In spite of the baby, in spite of a fast-food job, in spite of her best friend's loud mocking, and in spite of the reemergence of the baby's father into her life, the African-American teen decides to learn to spell so that she can compete, so that she can win. McDonald has created a vital cast of characters, giving them authentic voices and motivations. Even while cheering for Raven, readers will understand her best friend's hesitancy. The baby's father is depicted in both his lack of maturity and his desire to get beyond his parents' prejudices. Raven's mother is strong and reliable, clearly able to cope with the crises life hands her and hers. Among the shelves of novels about teenage girls dealing with unplanned babies, this is a standout.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Raven Jefferson is 16 and lives with her mother in a housing project in Brooklyn. She was a high school senior, until the birth of her son Smokey derailed most of her plans. Raven is at home, guilty and depressed about being a teenage mom and a drain on her mother's resources-Gwen Jefferson supports Raven and Smokey on the income from her job as a postal clerk. Initial tension is provided by the relationship between Raven and her older sister, Dell, who became a paralegal and moved into her own apartment. On her visits home, she prods Raven to better herself and go back to school. Raven has a really tight friendship with Aisha, who lives in the same project and is also a teenage mother. Aisha advises Raven, baby-sits for her, and makes her laugh when she is downhearted. As the story evolves, Raven takes control of her life-first by getting a part-time job, then striving to win a spelling contest that can lead to a college scholarship. Halfway through, Smokey's father, Jesse, reappears. He struggles to have his middle class African-American parents accept Raven and Smokey into their lives. There are some great depictions of character here; especially fine is the portrayal of the friendship between Raven and big, loving, feisty Aisha. The dialogue captures the pace and speech patterns of urban African-Americans, adding humor and descriptive power to the characterizations. Startlingly funny scenes add lightness to a work that, because of the subject matter, could have been very depressing. Although the ending is a little unbelievable and pat, on the whole it's satisfyingly hopeful. (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
“Spellbound is the rarest of books, funny and moving at the same time. . . . Thank you, Ms. McDonald, for writing this wonderful, fun, and touching book.”—Christopher Paul Curtis, winner of the Newbery Medal for Bud, Not Buddy
“This first novel is read-aloud funny, even as it tells the harsh truth about how hard it is to break free. . . . What’s great in this novel is the depiction of the grim reality of the neighborhood and the slick clichés of success. Best of all, [McDonald] humanizes the individual people behind the stereotype.”—Booklist, Starred Review
Read an Excerpt
A note from the author
Spellbound is a pun, a conundrum, and a cautionary tale. Raven, held by the magic of words their spelling, their meaning, and their power to liberate confronts and resolves the most intimidating predicament a teenage girl can face: sudden motherhood. The teenaged single mother is so familiar a phenomenon that to many she might appear ordinary. But when a baby bursts forth in the midst of a young life, for that girl, that mother, her very singular, unique, and promising journey is altered, and in too many cases truncated, forever. Her choice is existential strive or glide. Raven strives. Aisha glides. And that is where their friendship diverges. I was inspired to write their story by my four wonderful nieces who, one after another, became mothers much too young. Undaunted, each of them returned to school, sometimes years later, somehow finding the multiple arms to juggle a child, a job, and a dream.
Raven watched her mother's eyelids twitch and listened to her snore. The sound startled the baby, then his body relaxed again, limp and heavy. Maybe I'll get that job they had in the paper today. Then I can help out more, Mommy won't have to work so much overtime. She considered the bundle on her lap, its warmth and weight, and listened to the hiss of air as the baby sucked from an empty bottle. He was growing real fast. Three months old and soon it would be April, then he'd be four months, May, five months . . . and on and on, for years and years. What did the future hold for them? She was scared. Please, God, please, God, please, God, if you're up there, please give me that job.
Janet McDonald is the author of the adult memoir Project Girl. This is her first novel for young adults. She lives in Paris, France.