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The Only Black Girls in Town
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From award-winning YA author Brandy Colbert comes a debut middle-grade novel about the only two Black girls in town who discover a collection of hidden journals revealing shocking secrets of the past.
Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only Black girl in town for years. Alberta's best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can't understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black—and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.
Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.
When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie's attic, they team up to figure out exactly who's behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems.
I WOULD BE SAD THAT TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF surf camp if I weren’t so busy trying to ignore the worst person alive.
Our instructor, Irene, just passed out the trophies. Everyone got one, of course. They all say the same thing at the bottom: EWING BEACH SURF CAMP with the year engraved underneath. There’s a tiny gold surfboard sitting on top.
Next to me, Nicolette McKee is repeatedly kicking the balls of her feet into the sand, trophy held slack at her side. I have to see her at school and all over town because Ewing Beach is tiny. And then there’s the fact that she lives across the street, so I also have to see her just about every day of my life. But the end of surf camp means the start of school, and Nicolette is always worse when she’s around her friends.
Irene stands in front of the whole group to say how much she’s going to miss us. “I hope you’ll all come to the end-of-summer party this weekend,” she says, readjusting the knot of red hair on top of her head. “We’re gonna grill out, and we’ll have ice cream, and you can all bring your boards if you’d rather catch some waves.”
Nicolette sneers. “These aren’t even gold-plated,” she mutters. “They’re probably going to turn green in, like, a month.”
On the other side of me, Oliver Guzman holds his trophy in the air, admiring it. “Where are you gonna put yours, Alberta?”
“In my room,” I say, trying to ignore Nicolette. “What about you?”
“Our trophy case.” He shrugs when I give him a look. “My parents are into it. They like to show it off when family comes over.”
We all give ourselves a hand, Irene’s favorite way to close out each day of camp. Nicolette unzips her wet suit and starts pulling her arms out, right and then left. I bend down to slip my trophy into my bag, and when I stand up, Irene is in front of me.
“Great work this summer, Alberta,” she says, her blue eyes warm.
Then she smiles and leans in, whispering, “You were the best one in camp, but don’t tell anyone I said that.”
What? I barely have time to smile back before she’s moving down the sand toward her assistant, Jed, who’s breaking down the cardboard boxes that had held the trophies.
Irene was quiet, but by the grin Oliver gives me, I know he heard. And I really hope he was the only one. Even if Nicolette didn’t hear Irene, she can probably see it on me. I can’t stop grinning, and my chest immediately puffed up with pride as Irene’s words sank in. I watch Irene as she talks to Jed and then wanders away, but she doesn’t go up to anyone else and whisper in their ear.
“Awww.” Nicolette’s head is tilted to the side as she looks at me with wide eyes. “That’s cute, Alberta.”
I know not to take the bait, but I do it anyway. “What?”
“That Irene tries to make you feel good about yourself here. I guess it’s not like school, huh?”
I frown at her. I should walk away, but, like always, there’s something inside me that plants my feet to the ground and makes me keep listening to Nicolette McKee. I hate that something.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Oliver watching us.
“Sorry,” Nicolette says, not looking sorry at all. “It’s just that you’re, like, different here and different there, but Irene tries to make it special for you. That’s cute.”
I’ve been coming to surf camp since I was six years old. Three hours a day, four days a week for two months. I don’t need camp to surf, but it’s more fun to be with people who love it as much as I do. And I am into everything about it except the fact that Nicolette is in my surf group. She’ll take any chance to remind me that I don’t look like other people in Ewing Beach—that she doesn’t think I fit in.
I haven’t said anything. Just like my feet are rooted in the sand, my lips are glued tightly together.
Nicolette pauses then blinks at me, her eyes even bigger. “I mean, do you think you were the best surfer in camp?”
Dad says not to respond to ignorance with ignorance, and I know it’s never worth getting into it with Nicolette—ever—but sometimes I really want to.
“Yes,” I finally say. “I do think I was the best. I guess you just aren’t as good as you think you are.”
My father would probably count that last part as an ignorant comment, but it’s worth it just to see the way Nicolette’s eyes narrow into the thinnest slits. And to hear Oliver snicker.
“Whatever, Alberta.” She runs a hand over her wet ponytail, wringing out the last drips of water as she glares at me.
That—and she—is not even worth a response. I turn my back to her, tuck my board under my arm, and look at Oliver. “Ready?”
He nods and we head off together on our walk home, still wearing our wet suits. Oliver lives two blocks over from mine, and not for the first time, I wish he were the one who lived across the street instead of Nicolette.
“What’s her problem?” Oliver says, shaking his head.
I sigh. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.”
“You competing in the Pismo contest this year?”
“Maybe.” I hesitate. It’s a very hopeful maybe. I’m not allowed to compete in surfing contests until I turn thirteen. My dads’ rule, which I think is ridiculous. The contest is in a few weeks, and I don’t turn thirteen until next year. But I’m hoping to convince them with my powers of persuasion. “What about you?”
“Nah, not really my thing. I mean, I like surfing, but soccer’s more my sport.”
By the time we reach my street, my arm is cramping from holding my board. Maybe it’s because it’s the last day of camp, but I feel more exhausted than I have all summer. I say good-bye to Oliver at the corner and cross the street by the bed and breakfast that sits across the road from our house. Everything looks the same as always: the same HARRIS INN sign swinging from the white wooden posts in front of the porch, the same avocado tree, its branches heavy with fruit, and—
Wait. There’s a car in the driveway, and it’s not the silver one that the realtor drives. And the FOR SALE sign is gone, the one that’s been sitting in the yard for the last two months.
Someone bought the B&B? My stomach gets those excited flutters that mean something big is about to happen. Who’s going to move in? I can’t imagine anyone living there but Mrs. Harris.
Next to the B&B, little Stephan McKee is jumping up and down on his front porch, shouting at his nanny to hurry up so they can go to the beach. I roll my eyes. Stephan is five years old, and he’s the biggest brat I know. He’s always talking to his nanny like he’s the one in charge, and his parents never tell him to be nicer. I guess that’s no surprise, considering he’s Nicolette’s brother. Elliott says the entire family is cold.
Oliver and I rinsed our boards under the beach shower before we headed home, so I take mine around back to let it finish drying. Then I peel off my wet suit, hold it under the water spigot off the side of the house, and hang it to drip-dry in the shade.
When I walk around back, the door is open, letting in the breeze and letting out the sounds of Dad making lunch. I leave my surf bag on the porch, but I take out my trophy so I can put it next to the others in my room.
“How was it?” Dad asks as I kick off my sandy flip-flops and step inside. He’s busy chopping up cucumbers for the quinoa salad, but he stops when he sees my trophy. “Hey, look at that!”
“It’s not a big deal, Dad. Everyone got one.” I pad barefoot across the kitchen and give him a kiss on the cheek. “But… Irene said I was the best surfer in camp.”
Dad hoots with joy. “Of course she did! Of course you were. Good job, sweetheart. And not just because it means we’re getting our money’s worth out of that camp.” He winks at me. “Can we put this one on the mantel?”
“Maybe,” I say, turning it around in my hands. Even though it doesn’t seem important enough to go in the front room. Not like the ones you actually earn, like in the Pismo contest. “I’m going to take a shower before we eat.”
As much as I believe what Irene said, I wish I could remember it without thinking of Nicolette, too. I don’t think anyone besides Oliver heard Irene, but I wonder if they’d believe the same thing. That Irene only said that to make me feel special.
I go to wash off all the sweat, sand, and salt, then meet Dad back in the kitchen where he’s just finishing up the salad.
I grab two bowls in one hand and two glasses with another. Then I bump the cabinet door closed with my elbow. “Somebody bought the bed and breakfast?”
“Oh, I meant to tell you—I spoke to the real estate agent yesterday,” Dad says, nodding. “The new owners just got here this morning.”
After Mrs. Harris died, her grown kids arrived in three different cars, taking out boxes and boxes of stuff. Then construction workers started showing up every day, wearing fluorescent vests and hard hats as they did renovations. Everyone in town thought maybe one of Mrs. Harris’s kids would take over the bed and breakfast, especially her daughter who lives here in Ewing Beach: Mrs. Palmer. But Dad says she’s not interested in running a B&B, and the other two kids live across the country and don’t want to move to California.
The real estate agent has shown it to a few people, but no one has lived or stayed there since June. It’s the end of August now, which means the new owners are moving in just at the end of the busy season. Once the tourists stop coming, Ewing Beach looks like a ghost town.
“Do you know anything about the new neighbors?” I ask, putting silverware next to our bowls as Dad brings the salad to the table. I love quinoa salad. Unlike my best friend, Laramie, who says it feels like chewing on bugs. Laramie’s family doesn’t eat a lot of grains… or salad. Their mom works a bunch, and they eat a lot of fast-food burgers and mac and cheese from the box and her brother’s culinary concoctions, which are only edible about half the time.
“I was trying not to be too nosy,” Dad says, spreading his napkin over his lap.
I do the same. “You didn’t find out anything?”
“Well, I found out two things that may be of interest to you,” he says in a singsongy voice that drives me crazy. He only uses it when he’s trying to prolong the suspense, and it always ends up being more annoying than intriguing.
I take a bite of salad and wait for him to go on. He really drags it out, chewing another couple of bites. When he takes a drink of water and then dabs the corners of his mouth with a napkin, I can’t take it anymore.
“Dad! What did you find out?”
He laughs. “Okay, okay. Well, I think it will be of great interest to you that, number one, the new neighbors have a girl just your age.”
I nearly drop my fork on the floor. “What? Really?”
There hasn’t been anyone my age on this street since we’ve lived here. And we’ve been here since I was two years old. I’m twelve now. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere in Ewing Beach, but having a friend right across the street is something I’ve wished hard for and never expected to happen. Well, there’s Nicolette, but she’s a year older and definitely not a friend.
“Yup, she’ll be in seventh grade next week, just like you.”
I keep picking up forkfuls of quinoa, but I’m too excited to eat. I have a billion questions. Questions I am sure Dad doesn’t know the answer to, like what is her name and can she surf and is she a vegetarian, too? But there is one more that he can answer.
“What’s the other thing you know about them?” I ask. “You said there were two things.”
“Ah, yes. Are you ready?”
“Dad.” I give him my most exasperated look. It’s not as good as Elliott’s, but I think it’s close.
“They’re black!” he says in a voice so boisterous he sounds like the announcer on The Price Is Right—Elliott’s guilty pleasure.
“What?” I frown, sure that I didn’t hear him right.
“Finally, we won’t be the only ones on the street.”
Which means that finally, I won’t be the only black girl in my entire grade.
I rinse the dishes before I put them in the dishwasher, making sure to not leave a bit of food on the bowls or silverware. My other dad, Elliott, is picky about the kitchen, from the way the dishwasher is loaded to how the glasses are lined up in the cabinet (the lip of the glass should be down, not up).
As I scrub quinoa from the bowls, I think about the new neighbors. There aren’t many black people in Ewing Beach—barely any besides me, Dad, and Elliott. There are two boys a year older than me and a girl in the grade above them, but I’m the only black student in my grade. All the other black people in town are the same age as my grandparents and dads, or they’re little kids who toddle around on the beach with diapers under their swimsuits. Even most of the tourists are white.
And now we’ll have black neighbors? One who is a girl the same age as me? I have an overwhelming urge to find out everything about her. But Dad says we need to wait until tomorrow to introduce ourselves. Give them some time to settle in.
I have plans with Laramie, anyway. Her brother is working at the ice-cream shop today. She texted earlier and said I should come downtown because he always gives us a free cone when he’s there.
I stick my head in the office/guest room. “Okay if I go down to meet Laramie at the creamery?”
Dad’s frowning at his computer screen, but his worried eyebrows go back to normal when he looks at me. “Of course,” he says. “Just promise you won’t get butter pecan.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I like it.” Which means I know I’ll never be disappointed.
He groans and looks to the ceiling. “How did I end up raising a daughter so set in her ways? Have you seen the flavors they’re getting in down there lately? Balsamic swirl! Strawberry rhubarb! Olive oil!”
I scrunch up my nose. “No, thank you.”
Dad and Elliott are foodies, and I like most of the stuff they make, but I don’t try new things very often. And I’m okay with that.
“Fine,” he says with a sigh. “Guess I’ll have to live vicariously through someone a bit more adventurous.”
“I’m heading over to the gallery soon. Make sure you’re back before dinner, Alberta,” he calls after me.
I wheel my mint-green beach cruiser around the front of the house and look once more at the B&B before I push off. The car is still in the driveway, but I don’t see anyone outside. I think back to the Fourth of July, when the construction workers and real estate agent were gone, and Laramie and I tried to break in. Well, not break in. Not really. We just wanted to see what the place looks like now. But every door was locked tight, every window shade drawn shut.
I pedal quickly down my street, cross Burton Boulevard after looking both ways, then coast down Ewing Street, where everything in town happens. The air always smells like salt here, but it’s stronger now that I’m closer to the beach. I have to get off my bike after a while and walk it next to me because the sidewalk is too cluttered with tourists to ride. And the street is too cluttered with cars waiting for the tourists who spill out from the sidewalk to mosey along.
Coleman Creamery is in the perfect spot on Ewing Street, sandwiched between Rosa’s Tacos and the surf shop. Three of my favorite places. I lock up my bike on the side of the building since all the racks out front are full. Once the summer’s over, my bike will probably be the only one here.
Instead of a bell, the creamery makes a mooing sound when you walk in. I used to think it was funny when I was little. Dad or Elliott would let me push open the door, and I’d squeal each time as if it were my first visit. It’s so embarrassing now to have a cow sound off every time you open the door. I keep my head down as I walk to the counter.
Laramie Mason is sitting on the stool in front of the cash register, legs swinging back and forth as she licks at her cookies-and-cream-filled waffle cone. I think her legs are at least three times longer than when we finished sixth grade, and that was only a couple of months ago. I don’t understand how she’s getting taller while everything about me is staying the same.
“Hey.” I slide onto the seat next to her. The stools are the old-fashioned kind with red glitter vinyl seats that swivel around.
“Hey!” She bumps me with her shoulder. “I tried to wait for you, but he was almost out of cookies and cream and I was totally craving it today. I had to act fast.”
“It’s okay,” I say, looking behind the counter.
Laramie’s big brother, Leif, is scooping up ice cream. Laramie and her brother are the ones with hippie names, but she’s always teasing me about my family being the real hippies. I guess because we don’t eat meat, and we only use all-natural cleaning products and soap from local companies, and Dad has a compost bin in the backyard. And I don’t think that makes us any more hippie than a lot of people in California, but…
Before I was born, Dad and Elliott lived on an artists commune. They lived and made art with dozens of other painters and sculptors and illustrators. Then Elliott went back to school so he could be a professor, and Dad decided to open an art gallery. The commune is where they met. It’s also where they met my surrogate mother, Denise.
Leif rings up some customers and checks to make sure no one else is waiting. Then he walks over to me with a smile that shows off his perfect white teeth. Laramie complains that everybody thinks Leif is so cute, but it’s a fact. He’s sixteen, and he looks like what people think of when they think of California boys. He is tanned and has floppy golden hair and big, sparkling blue eyes.
“How’s it going, Alberta?” He gives me a high five, even though I think I’m getting too old for high fives from him. Or maybe it’s annoying because I don’t think boys his age high-five girls they think are pretty. “What can I get for you?”
“It’s going good. Can I get a scoop of butter pecan?”
“Got a new flavor in this week,” Leif says. “Key lime pie. Want to try it?”
I shake my head. “No, thank you. Just the usual, please.”
“Butter pecan in a sugar cone. Got it,” he says, saluting me.
I’ve always liked Leif because he’s a surfer, like me. He’s on the Ewing Beach High surf team, and sometimes I’ll go with Laramie and her mom to watch his contests. We don’t have a surf team in middle school, but as soon as I get to high school in two years, I’m trying out.
Leif carefully hands me the cone with a small square napkin wrapped around the bottom. “On the house,” he says. He always says that, even though he knows Laramie and I wouldn’t be up here so often if the ice cream weren’t free.
“Thank you.” I smile at him. When he goes to the other end of the counter to help a customer, I turn to Laramie. “A new family is moving into the bed and breakfast.”
“No way.” She takes the first bite of her waffle cone with a hearty crunch. “Someone’s finally moving into the Harris Inn?”
“Yeah, and my dad says they have a daughter our age. They just moved in today. Finally, we’ll have someone our age on my street.”
“Well, technically, you have Nicolette.”
“Nicolette is the worst person I know.”
Laramie laughs. “Come on, Alberta. The worst?”
I stare at her. “Give me one good reason I should like Nicolette McKee.”
“I don’t know. She was just up here, with her brother and nanny. I saw them outside and she said hey.”
“So just because she said hi to you, she’s nice?”
Laramie sighs. “I didn’t say that. I just… She’s not the worst person I know.”
Ugh. I hate when Laramie gets like this. Like she’s forgotten all the terrible things Nicolette has said to me over the years. I wouldn’t forget if someone had said those things to her.
“Well, the new neighbors are black,” I say, getting back to what we’re supposed to be talking about. I don’t want to think about Nicolette.
“Nice,” Laramie says.
Nice? I take a bite of butter pecan and roll the cool cream around in my mouth until it melts on my tongue. I feel like she should be saying more than nice, but I guess I don’t know exactly what I want her to say.
“I think it’s really nice. There definitely aren’t any black people on my street. There are barely any at school.”
“What about Rashawn? And Noah?” Laramie says. She’s counting them off on her fingers, which makes me feel weird.
“You forgot about Deanna,” I say after a few moments.
“Oh. Right. And she’s going into ninth grade.”
“Exactly. She doesn’t even go to our school anymore. Even if she was there, four people isn’t a lot. I’m the only black kid in our grade.”
Laramie looks down at her cone, nodding slowly. “I guess I never thought about it. You’re just you. You’re Alberta. You blend in. I don’t really think about you being black.”
I get that same tight feeling in my stomach, like when she was counting names on her fingers. I want to say that yes, I am Alberta, but part of being Alberta is being black. And I don’t blend in here in Ewing Beach.
That is something else I know for a fact.
But Laramie is my best friend. I don’t think she meant anything by it, and I don’t want to start a fight. She’s been kind of mopey lately.
I change the subject. I ask her what she’s wearing on the first day of school so I won’t accidentally say something that makes me sound as annoyed as I am.
WHEN I GET HOME, ELLIOTT IS SITTING ON THE couch with his legs stretched long in front of him. His eyes are closed.
“Hey, Al,” he says when the front door clicks shut. He doesn’t open his eyes.
I sink down next to him. “What if I was someone breaking into the house?”
“First of all, the crime rate in Ewing Beach doesn’t support that theory.” He leans over to kiss me hello. Eyes still closed. “Second, if you were breaking in, you’d quickly find we have nothing worth taking except all that gorgeous artwork. And third, our taste is too abstract for your typical burglar.” He collapses against the couch cushions and sighs as if that explanation exhausted him. “Where ya been?”
“Ice cream and then the surf shop with Laramie.” I think she only suggested the surf shop after our weird conversation in the creamery. We didn’t talk about it anymore, but I’m pretty sure she could tell it was bugging me.
“Sounds like a nice afternoon.” He opens one eye to peer at me. “Want to know what I did today?”
“Yes, please.” I slide off my flip-flops and bring my knees up to my chin.
“Well, I had a discussion with a student that got rather… heated.” Both his eyes are open now. He sighs. “I appreciate the passion, but it’s a bit early in the semester for all that.”
“What were you so heated about?”
“Kehinde Wiley.” Elliott’s mouth quirks up in a wry smile. “Let’s just say only one of us recognizes the man’s brilliance. How was the last day of surf camp?”
“Fine.” I pause because I feel Elliott’s eyes on me. He looks at me long and hard, the way he always does when he knows I’m not being truthful. “It was fine, but I hate that it’s over.”
Anything feels possible when I’m in the ocean, paddling out to catch a wave. I’ve felt that way ever since my first surfing lesson. I can’t wait to compete, but even if I wasn’t that good, I think I’d still love it.
“There’s always next summer,” Elliott says. “And the one after that, and the one after that…”
“Or there’s still time for me to enter the contest at the festival in Pismo Beach.…”
Elliott shakes his head. “Are you having a birthday between now and then that I don’t know about?”
“But I’ll be thirteen six months after the contest. Can’t you make an exception?”
“Al, I know you’d live in the ocean if you could, but a rule is a rule. Six months will be here before you know it.”
I frown. So will the contest they won’t let me compete in.
“Well…” I pause as if Nicolette will jump out from behind the couch to question what I’m saying. “Irene said I was the best surfer in camp.”
Elliott gives me a fist bump. “I always knew I liked Irene. Great job, Al.”
“Great enough to enter the contest?”
“You can still go surfing, even if camp is over,” he says. “Just no competing. We could head down to the beach on Sunday, if you want. Kick off the school year right and all that.”
I shrug, even though I really just want to stomp off and pout about the fact that I have to wait a whole year to start competing. But I’m pretty sure that won’t convince him I’m mature enough. “Maybe. I’m going down on Saturday for the camp party with Laramie.”
He nudges my shoulder with his. “All right. How about some pizza to celebrate you being the best?”
I give Elliott a grudging smile, but it turns into a real one after a few seconds. He may not get why I want to compete so badly, but he does get why it’s important that I’m one of the best surfers in Ewing Beach.
- "The Only Black Girls in Town is a tender, humorous, and suspenseful story about navigating the turbulent waters of middle school friendship. Alberta and Edie prove that Blackness is not a monolith and remind us that if you keep looking, there's always more to see and learn about the people and places we love. Colbert's middle grade debut is an unputdownable tale. Readers will want to hang out with Alberta and Edie long after the story ends."—Renée Watson, author of Some Places More Than Others
- *"A heartfelt tale with classy, indelible characters."—Kirkus, starred review
- "Exploring growing-up issues and historical secrets with empathy, insight, and grace, Colbert creates a stunning tale of family, friendship, and racial identity. An engaging, must read for everyone."—Jewell Parker Rhodes, bestselling author of Ghost Boys
- *"Colbert employs a compulsively readable style to convey the sometimes difficult experience of young friendship, and the power and peril of claiming one's identity out loud."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- *"A remarkable middle-grade debut from YA powerhouse Colbert...a sweet story featuring children of color trying to find their place in a society that tells them they do not fit. Strongly recommended."—Booklist, starred review
- "Colbert capably combines a familiar tale of middle-school friendships under pressure with details about ongoing racial microaggressions."—BCCB
- *"A nuanced novel that skillfully depicts the ways friendships can be shaped by common experience and racial proximity."—School Library Journal, starred review
- *"Colbert's well-articulated prose captures the difficulties of tween years without skirting around tough topics like racism, menstruation and bullying."—Shelf Awareness, starred review
- *Equal parts mystery, coming-of-age narrative and coastal California travelogue, The Only Black Girls in Town is an affectionate tribute to friends, both new and old, and the ways they enrich our lives.—Bookpage, starred review
- On Sale
- Mar 10, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers