If You Come Softly

by Jacqueline Woodson

A quiet, beautifully etched portrait of a first love that is shattered by the racism,... read more

A quiet, beautifully etched portrait of a first love that is shattered by the racism, If You Come Softly traces the relationship of two teens whose lives intertwine for a short but life-changing time. Ellie is Jewish and white. Jeremiah is black. Both are from well-to-do families where it's sometimes hard to be yourself, and both are new students at Percy Academy. It was Jeremiah's father, a well-known African American filmmaker, who wanted Jeremiah to attend a private school. Jeremiah doesn't let anyone know who is father is, though, or his mother, an accomplished novelist. It's too hard being yourself--being accepted for yourself, if your parents' fame precedes you. For Ellie, Percy was her own choice--made because she liked the sound of the name. "I knew it was a stupid reason to choose a school, but they all seemed exactly alike." Ellie lives with her parents in a large apartment that still echoes with the emptiness of her mother's leaving. It happened twice, and twice her mother returned, but the feeling of abandonment still haunts Ellie, even when she sits in the very same room as her mother harboring the secrets of her heart. One of those secrets is Jeremiah. They meet on the first day of school, and each makes the other feel right. But Ellie isn't sure how her parents would react to Jeremiah, and her heart can't risk finding out. For his part, Jeremiah takes Ellie home to meet his mother, who sees and understands her sons feelings. In his neighborhood, too, he has support, from a best friend whose mother is white and father is black. But he is hesitant to tell his father. "Thing about white people," his father tells him, "they don't know they're white. They know what everybody else is, but they don't know they're white." Jeremiah stays silent. Ultimately, however, it is not secrets and silence that separate Jeremiah and Ellie, it is the racism of our society, racism that makes a black teenage boy running with a basketball in a white neighborhood too quickly assumed as suspect, too quickly mistaken for a "tall, dark man" being pursued by the police. (Age 13 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 1998

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