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Twelve-year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has lived with her beloved grandfather Jeremiah in Huntsville, Alabama ever since she was little. As one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA, Jeremiah has nurtured Ebony-Grace’s love for all things outer space and science fiction—especially Star Wars and Star Trek. But in the summer of 1984, when trouble arises with Jeremiah, it’s decided she’ll spend a few weeks with her father in Harlem.
Harlem is an exciting and terrifying place for a sheltered girl from Hunstville, and Ebony-Grace’s first instinct is to retreat into her imagination. But soon 126th Street begins to reveal that it has more in common with her beloved sci-fi adventures than she ever thought possible, and by summer's end, Ebony-Grace discovers that Harlem has a place for a girl whose eyes are always on the stars.
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An excerpt from My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich
These clouds are a concrete wall! The airplane won’t push past the gray and blue to reach the endless black called outer space. So I have to take control.
I press my back against the seat, push up my glasses, close my eyes, and pretend the plane is aiming for the stars and planets and the very edge of our galaxy. The seatback in front of me is the control board, and I press button after button as the plane blasts through the concrete sky and becomes the Mothership Uhura. It’s star date 06.23.1984 and I’m now E-Grace Starfleet, space cadet, on a mission to rescue the great and wise Captain Fleet!
“I’m coming for you, Captain Fleet!” I whisper to myself.
The clouds part as the Uhura achieves Earth’s orbit. Then, in just a few milliseconds, I calculate the hyperspace jump all the way out to Andromeda. This part sometimes makes me queasy because warp speed forces time and space to squeeze my whole body—along with this morning’s breakfast rolling around in my belly—into an opening smaller than the eye of a needle. I’ve never thrown up while on the MothershipUhura. Until now.
Someone touches my shoulder, and I blink right back into the present, back onto this American Airlines Boeing 727, headed for New York City.
“Are you all right, honey?” the stewardess asks. “You look a little sick.”
I shake my head because my stomach is a whirling black hole ready to spew out long lost spacecraft and missing astronauts. The stewardess hands me a bag just in time and up come Momma’s grits and cheese and ham and eggs.
There’s nothing more human than throwing up.
Suddenly, I don’t feel like Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet anymore. Even in this airplane that’s supposed to be “something special in the air,” I’m just regular ol’ Ebony-Grace Norfleet Freeman, rising seventh-grader from Huntsville, Alabama. There’s nothing out-of-this-world about a too-stiff white shirt, ugly pleated skirt, lace-trimmed socks, a greasy press ’n’ curl, big ol’ glasses, and a tummy that feels like volcanic explosions on the surface of Mars.
I lean against the window to look out at the concrete sky, so incredibly close to outer space. The white lady across the aisle thinks I don’t notice her watching me out of the corner of her eye as she lights a cigarette. Maybe she thinks it will settle my stomach. I take off my glasses, place them on my lap, and close my eyes again.
When has the brave and powerful Captain Fleet ever needed saving? Never ever. Not when the Sonic King threatened to destroy theUhura with a single meteor. Not when his evil little minions, the Funkazoids, led Captain Fleet on a wild-goose chase all over Planet Boom Box. And not even when Momma made Granddaddy promise to “stop filling her head with crazy stories since she’ll be in junior high school soon!”
But now I am the farthest I’ve ever been from Captain Fleet in my whole entire life. He has no one to help him when he faces the evil Sonic King. He is all alone as I make my way to New York City.
“Of course the Sonic King took the opportunity to capture the great and wise Captain Fleet once and for all,” I whisper to myself.
This is where Granddaddy’s stories ended before I left for a whole week in New York City. And maybe this is where they’ll end forever since I am becoming a young lady and it is “time to do away with comic books and childish stories,” as Momma said before I left.
But Granddaddy doesn’t always keep his promises to Momma.
“Promise me I won’t be gone for too long, Granddaddy,” I had told him before I left.
“And promise me E-Grace Starfleet will rescue that old Captain Fleet from the hands of the evil Sonic King,” he’d replied.
Granddaddy may not always keep his promises to Momma, but we always keep our promises to each other.
“I’m coming for you, Captain Fleet,” I say aloud. I don’t even care if the white lady across the aisle looks at me sideways.
Slowly, the clouds begin to part and reveal New York City’s skyscrapers—the Twin Towers, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building. Somewhere on those streets, John Lennon got shot. A lot of people get shot in New York City. Back in Huntsville, I would always run to the TV whenever I heard Pam Carleton and Robert Lane start their Nightcast Weekend News report on Channel 48 with all the very bad, terrible, and awful things happening in New York City. And I’d think of Daddy. But Momma always sent me out of the room before the news report finished. She does that almost every time the news talks about New York City.
“I don’t want you hearing about all that sinning going on up there in that town. You can come back down when Reverend Swaggart is on,” she’d say with her hard-candy voice.
“No, thank you, Momma,” I’d say as I stomped back up to my room. Hearing about sin in New York City was way more fun than listening to Jimmy Swaggart sing sad songs about Baby Jesus.
I put my glasses back on, tighten my seat belt, and search all around my mind—my “imagination location,” as Granddaddy calls it—for a new name for this planet, a funky one with lots of soul, as Granddaddy would insist. Planet No Joke City echoes in my mind as if it was coming straight from Granddaddy himself. Ain’t nothing funny about No Joke City!
I let out a deep, ringing laugh just like my granddaddy’s.
It’s not until the stewardess comes over to tell me that we’ll be landing in twenty minutes that I start thinking about Daddy and his junkyard in Harlem, and my New York City best friend, Bianca Perez.
Last Tuesday when he called, Daddy sounded happy to have me for a whole week, even though he promised Momma that this time he’d sign me up for a day camp with ballet classes, piano lessons, and math enrichment, as well as making sure that I get to a good church on Sunday. But he’d also secretly promised me that he’d let me play in the junkyard, even if it meant getting in trouble with Momma.
Momma had been eavesdropping on the other phone line. “Julius, you better keep Ebony-Grace away from all those greasy men and little street urchins!”
If Daddy keeps his promise to Momma and signs me up for day camp, I won’t see Bianca the whole time I’m there. She’ll be stuck in her tiny apartment with no TV helping her grandmother sew dresses for rich ladies. Bianca’s definitely gonna need my help, too.
“I’m coming for you, Bianca Pluto!” I say under my breath. Surely, I can use a bigger crew to help on theUhura, and Bianca Pluto has already proven herself to be a worthy first officer.
When the airplane finally touches down, I squeeze my eyes shut and I’m on theUhura orbiting Planet No Joke City. I promise myself not to laugh after I beam down or else the aliens will recognize E-Grace Starfleet and take her prisoner. So before the airlock opens, I let out a giggle that becomes a chuckle that turns into an avalanche of big, bright joy. I laugh until I am a bubble floating up into zero gravity.
“Ebony-Grace. We have to exit the plane now. Do you need help with your things?” The stewardess’s voice pulls me back down to Earth.
She is not smiling, so I quickly stop laughing.
When I step off the plane and walk through a long, narrow, dimly lit hallway, no one welcomes me, there’s no parade for E-Grace Starfleet, the granddaughter of the brave and powerful space hero, Captain Fleet. No cheers, no laughter, no joy.
Ain’t nothing funny in No Joke City, all right.