Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Judy Blume Files: Iggie's House

It's difficult to find a word that accurately describes this children's book. Although in many ways the words nice or sweet would be fitting, both words are often used to describe books in a way that is condescending, as if to say that it was a good story, but something was lacking. And there is nothing lacking about Iggie's House. This is a great book, about the lessons eleven year old Winnie learns when a new family moves into her neighbourhood. 

The novel opens with Winnie eagerly awaiting the arrival of her new neighbours. She is sad and lonely. It is the beginning of summer. Her brother is away at camp and worse still, Iggie, her best friend in the whole world has moved away. Iggie and her parents have promised that Winnie will get a surprise when she discovers who has bought their house. And sure enough, Winnie is very excited to learn that three new kids will be moving into the house, including two boys who are both close to her own age. The only catch is this. Winnie lives in an all white neighbourhood. Her new neighbours, the Gerbers, are black and previously lived in Detroit.

Iggie's House was first published in 1970. The Detroit riots are mentioned a number of times, suggesting that the story is set a year or two earlier. The riots are used as an excuse for some of the local residents to justify their hatred (or perhaps fear of,) the Gerbers. Meanwhile, Winnie has never had any friends who are black before and, having learned about improving race relations at school the year before, she sets about trying to be a good neighbour. Her attempts at friendship with the three kids often go awry--for example when she first meets them, she asks if they came from Africa and when she learns that the Gerbers are from Detroit, she asks if they stole shoes during the riots. Consequently, the older Gerber boys find her ignorant and annoying. Winnie then tries harder to show them that she is a good person, but only time and discovering that the Gerbers are no different from her own family can eventually show her that what the Gerber kids need is a friend, not a good neighbour.

I actually enjoyed revisiting this one a lot more than Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. Winnie was a likeable lead character and despite the book being set in a different country and era, I could really relate to this one when I first read it--when I was a child a family of refugees from El Salvador moved into the house next door. While the adults in the area were busy debating the issues of refugees moving into what at that time was a predominantly white neighbourhood (everyone had either British or German ancestry). I was busy feeling excited because there was four kids close to my own age in the house next door. I was the first kid in the neighbourhood who was invited to play there. For the record, the family were sadly missed by most of the locals when they moved out five years later. Anyway, Iggie's House offers a sensitive and realistic telling of a difficult subject and was definitely worth rereading.