On the very first page of Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Being Clem, a knock at the door brings terrible news: Clem’s father has been killed in the 1944 shipyard munitions accident that will become known as the Port Chicago disaster. Clem’s mother, unable to find anyone willing to hire a Black secretary, is soon behind on the rent, and his older sisters, busy with friends and boys, have little time for their little brother’s grief.
When Clem skips a grade to attend middle school, he begins hanging out with Lymon, a new boy in town. But when Lymon begins to bully another new boy, Langston, who shares Clem's affinity for the local public library, Clem must make a difficult choice. Should he go along with Lymon, despite his misgivings, or stand up for the new boy—but risk losing a friend in the process?
As if all this weren’t enough for one boy to deal with, Clem's swimming lessons aren’t going smoothly either. How can Clem grow up to be a Navy man like his father when he’s afraid of the pool? Clem may know all the answers in school, but there's still so much he doesn't understand.
Although Being Clem can be read independently, fans of Cline-Ransome’s previous books Finding Langston (which received a Coretta Scott King Honor) and Leaving Lymon will appreciate the daring narrative choice to place Clem in friendships with her two previous protagonists—who are, in turn, one another's enemies.
Cline-Ransome also fills Being Clem with rich details from 1940s Chicago, including the real-life, award-winning DuSable High School swim team, whose members were Black and against whom some white teams refused to compete. Cline-Ransome explores societal issues of race, class and gender alongside Clem's more internal struggles to express difficult emotions like fear and sadness. Being Clem gains poignancy from Clem’s personal journey as he mourns the father for whom he is named and whose legacy he hopes he will one day honor.