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Things are unraveling at Shayla's house. Although her house is a house filled with love, things aren't perfect. Shayla's mother found condoms in older sister Tia's drawer. Tia is 15. An argument ensues, followed by another argument when the mother of the boy Tia is supposedly using the condoms with stops by the house -- even though the son is over 21. Shayla wants to be a writer, just like Lori Aurelia Williams, author of When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune. In this strong-willed and provocative tale, Williams lends a warm voice to chilly issues like teen sex and sexual abuse.
At home Shayla spends most of her time writing in her notebook, "wondering who let the butterflies out of our house and replaced them with wasps." Thinking about what to write in her notebook gets her through rough times. After the condom fight she thinks, "Mama is all broken inside, and sorrow is hanging from our ceiling like icicles from Christmas trees."
Shayla's Grandma Augustine thinks a Foot Grabber got to Tia. A Foot Grabber is "slick as okra," "a little demon that pushes his way outta hell when girls get about Tia's age, grabs 'em by the foot, and makes 'em cut the fool with no account men when they ought to know better...." Shayla's mother dismisses this idea as "superstitious hogwash."
Meanwhile, Tia fights with both her mother and her grandmother, convinced she is truly in love. And a story Shayla worked really hard on gets rejected from a writing contest. Then Tia disappears for a while. And Shayla's good-for-nothing, long-lost father wanders back in, and eventually back out, of her life.
But none of Shayla's troubles can compare to her new next-door neighbor's problems. When Kambia Elaine moved in, they became best friends. People around her poor Houston neighborhood say Kambia's mother sells herself to pay the rent. Kambia won't talk about it. Instead, Kambia tells strange tales. She likes to pretend she is a tree, or a piece of driftwood. She often doesn't make it to school. And keeps getting sick. And skinnier and skinnier. Sometimes Kambia's pale thighs have bruises on them. Shayla presses her to find out what's wrong with her. When Kambia finally admits her problems to Shayla, she does so in code: There are wolves with poisonous spit that come out of her wallpaper and hurt her with their big sharp teeth, she explains, scared. Shayla thinks she knows what Kambia means. But she isn't sure. She can't ask her mother or her grandmother, because she promised Kambia she wouldn't.
One day on the way to school, Kambia, sick again, collapses. Shayla is forced to bring her to the hospital. Shayla's family, Tia included, gathers around Shayla to support her. Her grandmother helps her understand that sometimes betraying a friend's confidence is necessary. So Shayla tells police officers and hospital workers about Kambia's wolves. And in doing so, she pretty much saves Kambia's life.
Somehow, in Williams's capable hands, this disturbing story of abuse isn't overwhelmingly upsetting. Actually, it is almost uplifting. Love and family -- and not a typical nuclear one at that -- fuel the interactions in this book. Tia flees the family after the sex argument, but ultimately love guides her home, and love welcomes her back. When Shayla keeps secrets she shouldn't, love shows her where and when to speak up. There is an understanding between these four women -- Shayla, Tia, their mother, and grandmother -- that transcends anything that comes their way. It enables the four of them to make mistakes, to correct their mistakes, and to learn from them and from each other. Kambia Elaine is an instructive and highly readable story, and Williams's effortless prose helps the medicine go down.