By Donna Williams Vance, Blackbooksandreviews.com
Crystal Allen, author of The Laura Line, says the moral of the story is: “Love yourself. Love your ‘Line.’ Live your dreams.”
Your “Line?” What’s that, you say?
In the meantime, know that those words sum up the many messages in “The Laura Line,” Allen’s second book for folks ages 8 to 12. Her first for that age group is How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.
“I seem to naturally write for middle graders,” Allen says. “Their voices flow so easily for me, and I love that age group.”
“The Laura Line” protagonist is Laura Eboni Dyson, who uses the modern vernacular of a 13-year-old. She emphasizes her thoughts with “heck to the double yes!” Laura’s analogies reflect an early teen’s mindset, and her language, in general, is colorful and expressive, and conveys grown-up thoughts just as an adolescent would. From Laura’s feelings and self-assessments to her crush on her “hunky chunky,” Troy, to the realization of her ancestry – her “line” – Allen transforms herself into an early teen, not only with language, but with imagery.
For example, Laura imagines herself in the facial dimple – yes, inside the dimple – of her “ultra-cute” crush, Troy. Silly, perhaps, but typical for a seventh-grader. Or, in describing her grandmother’s hallway, Laura evokes this picture: “The walls leading down the hall are painted a green I’ve never seen in any crayon box … It’s not gross-green or even puke-green, but it definitely belongs in the sick-green family.” (Is this not the voice of a 13-year-old?!)
Not only is Allen keyed into the lingo of an early teen, she is also aware of the mentality. She hones in on the initial stages of teen angst, the time when appearance – in this case, weight – begins to supersede important things like others’ feelings, or the wealth of one’s ancestry.
Laura and her BFF Sage are overweight. They have a loyalty that is strong, perhaps strengthened by their … “well … you know,” as they would say. And while their weight doesn’t prevent them from being adolescent fashionistas, from emulating models, or from applying and re-applying lip gloss, “just in case,” they do strategize to avoid attention.
They are tops in their hobbies: Sage is a talented photojournalist – yes, in middle school, and Laura has a mean arm. She even teaches her baseball beau Troy a thing or two … or three. And the girls eventually get it! They realize their abilities and backgrounds make them, not their weight. When Laura does get it, it is then that we root for her, turning the pages proudly and triumphantly because she is “handling hers.”
We see Laura’s weight as an issue skulk, backstage as more substantive matters come forward.
As the story progresses, loyalty and the alliance among the girls is increasingly prominent. Laura’s pitching talent is highlighted. Her self-esteem increases, as her dependence on others’ opinions of her decreases.
That blossoming is fun to watch. But the best part is seeing Laura’s confidence crest when she discovers the Laura Line. She detaches herself from the “Fat Larda” label and assumes her position in a lineage of Lauras – eight predecessors named Laura whose stories are housed in a shack and cemetery on her grandmother’s farm.
At first, Laura Eboni is afraid of “the shack,” – in fact, she didn’t want to go to stay with her grandmother because of it – and she regards it ashamedly as a slave shack that she does not want her classmates to see.
“There it is representing a gazillion different levels of wrong and, worse, the number-one reason I didn’t want to come here,” Laura laments.
But upon her eventual entrance into the shack and investigation of it and its stories, she quickly comes to know and appreciate the Lauras and their legacies as altruistic slave, teacher, restaurant owner, athlete, seamstress/model, journalist, loan officer and scientist. This is when Laura begins to love her “line,” as Allen so instructs readers.
While the story has some similarities to Allen’s early life (the scenery is the same as her grandmother’s farm on which there was a shack-like house), it isn’t really autobiographical, she says. Unlike Laura who entered the shack under the influence of infatuation, Allen “never ventured inside and to this day, I regret it,” she shares.
Reminiscing about that, she “began to put several ‘what ifs’ together concerning the little shack-like house, the cemetery, and my own personal actions. Soon thereafter, Laura visited my thoughts and the journey began to The Laura Line,” Allen says.
One suspects Allen had a good time writing this book, as it has U.S. history and family history. It has a heroine and positively frames African-American families, Allen says. She believes to paint the African-American family as lopsided with heavy negative leanings is “unfair.”
“I write books where race is not the issue or the focus,” she says, “yet my main characters are African American. In How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, Lamar could have been any boy or any race, but I chose him to be black. In The Laura Line, Laura could have been of any race dealing with her ancestry.
“To me, this genre of book offerings depicting young black characters as normal, with everyday problems that all young people face, (is) sorely underwritten.”
About the Book Review Author
Donna Williams Vance is a former journalist with USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News and the Charlotte Observer. She lives in Maryland.