Jade is an extraordinarily talented African-American teenage artist about to begin her junior year at St. Francis High School in Portland, Oregon. St. Francis is a private high school in a nicer neighborhood than the one in which Jade lives with her mother and uncle; its students are mostly white. Jade agreed to attend St. Francis because she won an academic scholarship and she was excited about the possibility of participating in their ‘study abroad’ program; she sees it as a chance to give of herself, rather than being perceived as someone who only needs opportunities. Piecing Me Together follows Jade in her junior year as she begins to examine her conflicting feelings about her home, her dreams, and herself in a deeper way than ever before:
When I learned the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends.
She confronts her frustration at being externally judged by her race, her body size and her economic status, finding her unique voice in the process. The school counselor nominates Jade for a Mentoring program for African-American girls called Woman to Woman. Jade is not thrilled about the prospect but participation in the program means a college scholarship so she agrees to it. Jade’s experience with her mentor, Maxine, helps her to take the first step in having a hard conversation about things that are important to her.
It feels like Woman to Woman takes us to all these places outside of our neighborhood, as if the places in out neighborhood aren’t good enough….I get so confused–because some of the time you act like you’re proud of me, and other times you act like you’re ashamed.
Having this conversation with Maxine is a turning point for Jade. It allows her to see that what she thinks and feels is important and worth speaking. It also gives her an experience in which another person listens to her voice. It gives her courage to try using her voice in other situations: initiating conversations about race with her white friend, Sam, taking the initiative to address an injustice in school with a teacher and advocating for herself and her art with adults who could help her along her journey.
Jade’s chosen art form is that of collage and this both parallels and serves as a brilliant metaphor for her own journey throughout the book:
I tell her how I’ve been thinking about being stitched together and coming undone.
Jade shows us that quitting on people and situations when the conversation (or the situation) gets hard does a disservice to herself. Learning to plow through those difficult conversations honestly leads Jade to feel increasingly empowered by her own truth and the confidence to go forward.
The characters of Jade, Lee Lee, Sam and Maxine in particular are incredibly well written–complete and authentic in themselves. The structure of the book is primarily linear and any tangents that are briefly explored have a direct impact on the main story. No word is wasted. Piecing Me Together will both fill your heart and break it. I know that reading about Jade and her experience will have a direct impact on the choices I make in public and academic environments when I observe examples of racism; it will make me more aware of what is actually happening, as opposed to what I wish was the case. I feel foolish and embarrassed because I’m sure it has occurred in front of me–as it did in both a department store and the school cafeteria for Jade–and I have simply been oblivious to it because it was not part of my life experience as a white woman raised in a primarily white suburb in Minnesota.
I LOVED Piecing Me Together and highly recommend it as an independent read–or as a buddy read with your child. There are numerous opportunities within its pages to start some of those hard–but often necessary–conversations.