Camille Yarbrough’s The Shimmershine Queens
Putnam-Penguin 1989

When I’ve had one of those soulfully-exhausting days (or weeks), one of the things that I like to do is browse in the children’s library. I have my favourite branches, but often this is a hasty act of desperation which involves stopping at my local branch, on my way home, and browsing for 15 minutes or so.

Some of the authors on Dodson’s list are so familiar to me now that I habitually stop where their books are shelved and paw at them awhile (say, Sharon Creech or Nancy Farmer, Jean Craighead George or Virginia Hamilton (I’ve read some of the latter pair, but Creech and Farmer are still on my TBR list). And lately I have a new haunt, the Diana Wynne Jones’ books, conveniently located next to a favourite old haunt, E.L. Konigsberg’s novels.

But one of the books on Shireen Dodson’s list that I simply had to make a point of tracking down was Camille Yarbrough’s The Shimmershine Queens. I’d never heard of the author before, and the title was one which didn’t stick in my reader’s brain, so it took an old-fashioned request and inter-library-loan to get it onto my reader’s stack.

Now that I understand what Shimmershine means, I understand why it’s used for the book’s title. Angie first hears of it from her Cousin Seatta:

“And those sweet seein dreams lift up my mind till I can see all kinda different ways to lift my own self up from under whatever be worryin me. I can see in the future. I can see in the past. I can see me doin my best, things that astound the world.”

Cousin Seatta is 90 and Angie is ten, but the years in between only serve to accentuate the power that the older woman’s words hold for her younger listener:

“And when I’m doin’ my best, a feelin come over me. Ooh, I feel right warm and bright all over myself. I call it the shimmershine feelin’.”

It might sound a little hokey, out of context, but it works with Cousin Seatta’s character and Angie’s love for the older women adds power to the delivery, and Angie sets out to foster that shimmershine feeling. It’s a defensive act. “If one kid real dark, then the other kids laugh at the one that real dark like me. Call all kinda names and stuff. Grown-ups do it too, just talkin about they don’t like nothing too black.”

The second chapter of the novel is the longest and contains a dramatic episode that serves to intensify Angie’s goals and to ally her friend Michelle with her. “Angie, we gon be the shimmershine queens.” It’s a realistic and believable scene and Angie’s reaction is completely understandable, but she is not entirely alone, with her friend, Michelle, and a new teacher, Ms. Collier, helping her cope.

The remaining chapters don’t allow Angie to coast (she’s still struggling with her father’s absence and with her mother’s depression and illness, which often means that Angie has to adopt responsibilities that most ten-year-old girls don’t have to cope with), but the conflicts are balanced with a new, exciting influence in Angie’s life that helps her continue to reach for that shimmershine feelin’.

Angie is a credible character and I wish that I had met her when I was a younger reader. It wasn’t until I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye that a character openly challenged the pervasive blonde-haired-blue-eyed ideal of beauty in my reading, and I wish I’d heard Cousin Seatta’s words when I was ten years old.

Have you read a book written for younger readers this week?

Companion Reads:
Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely
Judy Blume’s Blubber

PS Next Saturday, my book for younger readers will be Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat, as part of my Margaret Laurence week: it was just as wonderful a re-read as I had hoped that it would be!