Come a Stranger by Cynthia Voigt 1986
IQ "Miz Hunter smiled then, the way old people often did, as if she was remembering something far away, as if she'd like to take Mina into her memory and share it together, almost as if Mina already was a part of whatever she was looking back at." pg.3
Come a Stranger is about Mina Smiths, who is t-rou-ble. The story takes place in Maryland and we follow Mina's journey through adolescence and the early stages of puberty and all its awkwardness (from twelve to fifteen). Mina is a talented, graceful ballet dancer and she wins a dance scholarship for a prestigious dance camp (where she is the only Black girl there). Mina learns a lot at this camp and has a wonderful time. However, upon her return to dance camp the next summer, people have changed. Or at least Mina has. Racism seems more noticeable to her and she is told that she is "maturing too quickly to dance" (back cover). Mina than meets someone who inspires her to look at herself and the world, differently.
I first read an excerpt of this book in Pirouette: Ballet Stories by Harriet Castor (an anthology of excerpts from autobiographies of dancers as well as stories about dance). I remembered it made an impression on me since it was about a black ballet dancer (I wasn't sure we existed) and I was a black ballet dancer. I don't recall ever reading the whole book (I might have, I really don't remember) but it was a delight to go back and read the book and as I read that same excerpt, I was reminded of my childhood and how much I love/hate ballet. I love how books bring back memories :) So obviously, the parts about ballet were my favorites. I sympathized with Mina when she was the only black girl at dance camp (been there, done that but all year round) and how she couldn't figure out how to act around the other girls. She also handled essentially being told that she was a failure quite well. By well, I mean realistically. She didn't get over it right away, she actually moped and she believed the headmistress too (I was afraid she would get all self-righteous, which would be wonderful but not completely authentic for a fourteen year old).
An issue I had with Come a Stranger was how mature Mina seemed. I think the story started when Mina was twelve, but she always sounded exceedingly wise for someone her age. I like Mina a lot, she picks her battles wisely and she doesn't sit back and take anything, she gives it back as best as she can. Today, Mina wouldn't really be considered t-rou-ble, but in the '80s (I think that's when the book is set), she does things that can be seen as rebellious and frowned upon. She's outspoken and I think that was still a big no-no at the time. However, Mina is incredibly laid-back and devoid of all the young angst that usually accompanies middle school and high school, which was both refreshing and odd. She was very confident which I applaud, but I would have liked to see her in a bit more human light (she seemed to perfect).
Another thing I really like about Come a Stranger is that it brings up first crushes, but not with people close in age. In Mina's case, it's a first crush on an older man. I enjoyed reading about her crush and how she handled it. I totally understood why she was crushing on the man. It was the one thing where Mina wasn't perfect, she fancied herself in a love with a man that she should have been avoiding (he was married with kids). Black and white friendships are brought up as well along with first experiences of subtle racism (Mina never experiences outright racism, but she starts to realize that it is beneath the surface). The only other problem I had with the novel was all the subplots thrown in, they weren't balanced very well and I didn't get a full grasp of all that was going on.
Come a Stranger is filled with exquisite writing that accurately describes human emotions and trials (like the IQ). Mina is a fantastic role model for girls although she does seem to transcend past the awkward adolescent stage (mentally, not physically) and I'm glad she's t-rou-ble! 6th grade and up.
Disclosure: Received as a gift for the holidays. Thanks Wendy!
PS This is the 5th book in the Tillerman saga which I haven't read. I'm undecided if I will read the rest (I do want to read more if Mina's involved, does anyone know if she reappears?)