Betsy's Reviews > Nikki and Deja

Nikki and Deja by Karen English
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Mar 05, 08

Read in March, 2008

Here is the sad but true fact about the state of children's publishing today. You would think that for all our talk about diversity and equal opportunity that the number of books for children with African-American characters would make up a significant part of the marketplace. Not as such. Oh, you can certainly find picture books with African Americans, if you squint really hard and look in the right places. But here's a fun game to play: Walk into your local bookstore and library and try to find as many early chapter books about black characters as you can find. Go on, try it. And no, black best friends don't count (sorry, Andy Russell). I tried it myself, but aside from The Toothpaste Millionaire (copyright 1972) and the occasional Ann Cameron story, the pickings are significantly slim. What's more, I just don't get sent a lot of books that fall into this category either. But when I do, and when the book is written by someone as accomplished and fun as author Karen English, you can bet your sweet bippy that I'm going to read it. Nikki & Deja is a lovely little book about friendships, jealousy, miscommunication, and forgiveness. Everything, in fact, that kids reading it will relate to.

Nikki and Deja are best friends, no question. They live right by one another, go to the same school, and are generally inseparable. Even when snobby Antonia moves in next door she can't break these two girls apart. But that's before Deja has the idea to start a drill club during recess. It might be fine except that Nikki has NO rhythm. None at all. And when her failure turns the two against one another Deja joins a club of her own without her "best" friend. Will the two be able to ever talk to one another again, or is this just another part of growing up?

Children are too young to be seriously interested in the drama inherent in romantic break-ups and ties. They can't relate. But hand them a book where one kid snubs another or two best friends stop talking and suddenly they're all ears. Even adults who have long passed out of childhood still feel the sting of rejection when they read a book that chronicles so perfectly playground dramas. English has a lovely way with a pen. I've always thought fondly of her book of poetry Speak to Me: And I Will Listen between the Lines, which I always sort of thought of as an unappreciated gem. She brings her talent to bear here with her great dialogue as well. I was a little thrown off by the two girls playing games like jacks (do they still play jacks these days?) but all in all the tone was one of the book's finer qualities.

One of the other things I loved about this title too was that our two heroines decide right from the start that the new girl is a stuck-up snob, and by the end of the book they look deep into their hearts and discover that instead the new girl is actually . . . a stuck-up snob! I was betting good money early in this book that there would be some kind of miraculous conversion or a moment when we talked to Antonia and realized that her snobbiness was just a cover-up for feeling insecure. Maybe that'll be the case in a future Nikki & Deja book, but for this one stuck up is stuck up and there's nothing more to be said about that.

Early chapter books usually contain a picture or two to keep readers going. They don't "need" the pictures if you ask them, but secretly I think they appreciate them just the same. And you know what I liked about Laura Freeman's style? These were not sandwich-starved waifs staring out at you from the cover. The kids in this book weren't fat, but they had heft to them. They had weight. In this body-obsessed culture in which we live, the last thing I want to see when I pick up a book are stick thin skeletons ala Madonna's latest English Roses title. I want kids that actually look like real kids, and Laura Freeman provides me with that. Thank you, Laura! It's downright decent of you.

As I've said before, finding children's books with African-American characters isn't hard, but they're certainly not as common as the five million white kid books out there today. Nikki & Deja is more than just its characters, though. It has heart, and grace, all wrapped up in a lovely little tale. I'll be happy to read the next book in the series should Ms. English care to write it. I hope she does.
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