July 2017

Karen English

A story as gently powerful as its creator
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What was it like growing up black in a mostly white neighborhood in 1960s Los Angeles? Karen English, like the heroine of her new middle grade novel, knew the drill.

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What was it like growing up black in a mostly white neighborhood in 1960s Los Angeles? Karen English, like the heroine of her new middle grade novel, knew the drill.

“Before we left the house, my mother would say, ‘Remember to act your age and not your color,’ ” English says. “It didn’t feel like a bad thing. It felt like, ‘Oh yeah, right. We have to show other people that Negroes are just as good.’ It was like a little responsibility that we had. It was so—I hate to use the word natural—but you know, after 400 years, it was like breathing.”

English remains a Los Angeles resident, and we speak over the phone while she’s visiting her mother in Northern California. English has written many children’s books, including the Nikki and Deja series and The Carver Chronicles, and is a Coretta Scott King Honor winner. But her latest book—the spot-on, beautifully understated It All Comes Down to This—is personal, taking on weightier themes and aimed at an older middle grade audience. Like Sophie, the novel’s 12-year-old protagonist, English grew up in an L.A. neighborhood that was “turning,” or growing more integrated.

At first English recalls idyllic touchstones: riding her bike and enjoying more freedom than today’s kids have. But she also remembers going to the house of a friend who suddenly announced, “Oh, I can’t play with colored people anymore.”

“It was like a stab in the heart,” English says. In one scene in It All Comes Down to This, Sophie isn’t allowed to swim in a neighbor’s pool, but Sophie’s white friend Jennifer sticks with her, refusing to swim.

“It was just the way things were,” English notes, “like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. You just kind of accepted it.”

English was eager to fictionalize another particularly memorable incident. Sophie’s mother is modeled after the author’s, who came to California during World War II to work in a shipyard and later briefly played Ruby, the wife of Amos, in several “Amos ’n’ Andy” television episodes. After English’s mother and father divorced, her mother remarried a lawyer and moved the family to a middle-class neighborhood. Then one day, a black housekeeper pulled English aside to criticize her light skin, saying, “If you ever [go] to Africa, they would kill you. They don’t like no light-skinned Negroes in Africa.”

Coincidentally, English ended up marrying a man from Senegal. “So I learned that wasn’t true,” she says nonchalantly. And yet that incident made an indelible impression: “I wanted to write a book around it.”

Set during the summer of 1965, It All Comes Down to This begins with the arrival of a similarly gruff housekeeper, Mrs. Baylor, who makes such a remark to Sophie. “There’s still colorism—I guess I can use that as a word—in the African-American community,” English says. “It was really big back then.”

In one of the novel’s numerous historically informative moments, another housekeeper—a beloved one—asks Sophie (who loves to read and write), “Can’t you come up with something about colored girls? Don’t they have a story?”

English, who taught elementary school for some 30 years, understands this question all too well. She calls writing “an obsession” that started at age 7, and she penned her first novel in the sixth grade. “I couldn’t make my main character black, because other than Little Black Sambo, I had never seen black people in children’s books or on TV, nor in my teenage magazines,” English says. “So when I wrote this character, I said to myself, ‘She’s Negro.’ But I gave her blond hair and blue eyes.”

The author laughs quietly, a moment of amusement that stands in stark contrast to her powerful stories of racial injustice. In much the same way, It All Comes Down to This is a gentle yet provocative book, allowing Sophie’s eye-opening experiences about race to unfold amid quiet summer days filled with Anne of Green Gables, Hawaiian Punch and “Gidget” on TV. It’s as silent as a tsunami, striking with painful force at times, like when Sophie thumbs through an old Jet magazine from 1955, spotting photos of brutally murdered Emmett Till in his casket.

Also like Sophie, the author lived in L.A. during the Watts riots, which were foremost on her radar but distant enough to seem otherworldly. “It was kind of exciting,” English says, “and yet you felt responsible because you are a Negro.” She recalls how the National Guard pulled her over as she drove to church, miles away from the riots. She notes several similar childhood memories, saying, “We knew if the police stopped you, it was hands on the wheel, 10 and 2, yes sir, no sir. It was bad, even then.”

English’s novel also records changing racial nomenclature, a helpful history for young readers. “When I was coming up,” English explains, “you wouldn’t dare call someone black. But it was kind of liberating when that word came in. It was like, ‘Whoa, we’re black.’ And there was some power behind that word.”

A lot has changed since English’s childhood, but so much remains the same. She points to beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary as her literary heroine, saying she adores her writing and was “propelled” by her example. But English added a personal twist: “I wanted to write something that reflects another kind of African-American experience. It seems like we have this prescribed narrative of drugs, gangs, absent fathers and poverty. That is part of our story, but we have other stories.”

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

It All Comes Down to This

It All Comes Down to This

By Karen English
Clarion
ISBN 9780544839571

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