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Clouds over California
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Stevie’s life is fluctuating rapidly. She's starting over in a brand new middle school. Quiet and observant, it's hard for her to make friends. Plus, her mind is too occupied. The tension in her home is building as her parents' arguments are becoming more frequent. To top it all off, Stevie's older cousin Naomi is coming to live with the family in an attempt to keep her from a "bad" crowd—The Black Panthers.
Stevie agrees to keep Naomi's secrets. She's the cool big cousin, after all, and Stevie can't help but notice the happy, positive effect the Black Panthers are having on Naomi's confidence and identity—just like how Mom is making decisions for herself, even when Dad disapproves.
Stevie feels herself beginning to change as well. But one thing remains the same: she loves both of her parents, and she loves them together. Can her family stay in one piece despite the world shifting around them?
I don’t want to hear any more about it!” Dad says, the color in his cheeks rising with his voice. He waves a hand over his head, attempting to close the door on further discussion.
Mom quickly shushes him. “Keep your voice down. You’ll wake Stevie.”
But it’s too late for that. I’ve been up for at least an hour while the two of them have been barking at each other. I don’t know what happened. When I went to bed they were watching TV and laughing together. They were having a great time.
I tried to go back to sleep, tried to drown out the fighting by burying my head under pillows and stuffed animals, but they were just too loud. Then I thought that maybe if I came down to the kitchen, I could get them to stop. But once I got there, I couldn’t figure out what to say or what to do. So, instead of doing anything, I’m just standing here. Hiding around the corner, hoping they’ll stop.
“I just don’t understand it,” he says, turning his back to her and heading for the sink. “You’ve got everything you need. Everything all taken care of, and still, you want to go to school? For what?”
Oh, so this is what it’s about. I’ve heard Mom talk to my aunt Mona about wanting to go back to school. To college.
“You got you a good man who provides for you all. Why on earth would you wanna do something like that?”
But Mom says she always feels like she missed out. I’ve even heard her say that if she got her “degree” she might be able to work. I wonder what kind of degree she’s even talking about. What kind of work. She’s never said anything about wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. And I wonder if she’s told Dad that she wants to go to work. ’Cause seriously, if he gets this mad about her going to school, I can’t imagine what he’d say to her getting a job.
Mom lets out a loud sigh, making her nostrils flare. “I’ve told you. It’s only a couple classes. It wouldn’t interfere—”
But Dad interrupts. “The only women that go to college are there looking for husbands. And the men there know it. Is that it? Are you trying to find a boyfriend?”
A boyfriend? At school? What the heck is he talking about?
“Oh, Coop, you can’t be that ridiculous!” Mom says, joining him at the sink, but he turns his back to her and fills a glass with water from the tap.
“Heck, I go to work, make sure we’re taken care of, and when I come home—well… I want a home! What’s wrong with that? I go to work—you take care of the house.”
Mom says Dad is “old-fashioned,” but sometimes he just seems plain unfair to me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her tell him he can’t do something. Besides, what’s wrong with Mom’s wanting to take a few classes? What’s the big deal?
“I move us into this nice place and—”
“Hold on!” interrupts Mom now. “I never asked to move,” she says. “None of us wanted to move, Coop!”
I know I didn’t want to move. I loved my old house. My old room. My best friend was just across the street. And my parents weren’t fighting. Why are they fighting?
Dad turns to Mom and is about to say something to her when he spots me at the doorway. I guess I leaned a little too far into the kitchen. He doesn’t say anything, but Mom sees his eyes land on me and quickly whips around.
“Stevie!” She makes a beeline for me but snaps at him from over her shoulder, “I told you you’d wake her!”
“You must think I’m stupid,” he mumbles. Then he turns to her again. “I know what this is really about, Kitty. The only reason you want—”
This time, Mom waves a dismissive hand his way. “Oh, what is wrong with you?” She takes hold of my shoulders and leads me out of the room. “C’mon, pumpkin. You need to get back to bed.”
As we exit, I turn and watch Dad simmer as he stares into his glass. “I won’t have it!” he mutters. His face is red, and I swear I can hear his heavy breathing from all the way over here.
Once we’re in the living room, Mom stops to drag a manicured finger under the corner of her eye, but I still see the tears there. It looks like she’s cried all her makeup away.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that, Stevie, but don’t worry. Everything’s okay.” But it’s not. I can see it’s not. “Want me to read a little something to you?” she asks, checking my face for any sadness that may have rubbed off.
I force a smile. The last thing I want is for her to worry about me.
“Sure,” I say. Mom hardly ever reads to me anymore.
My room is peaceful, and I think I can feel Mom soften as we enter and cross to my bed. My night-light casts a cool glow on the floor and the moon beams in a strip of gold through a crack in the drapes. I push my stuffed toys to the floor and make room for Mom to scoot in next to me.
Over the head of my bed is a small shelf lined with all sorts of books, a dictionary, and the illustrated encyclopedia of the animal kingdom. Mom wants to read from the new book of funny poems she picked up from the library.
She launches into a silly story about a king and a peanut butter sandwich. She tells the story with a stuffy British accent, and I laugh through the whole thing. By the end, we’re both cracking up.
“That was pretty good!” she says when she’s finished.
“I liked it,” I say. “It was funny.”
“Please!” I pull my covers up to my chin and snuggle in close to her. Sleepiness creeps in and I surrender to it, so comfortable in my bed, my mom’s voice gently coaxing me to sleep.
It must be hours later when a nearby siren cuts through my dreams and startles me awake again. I remember the fight. Mom crying. Dad so angry.
The room is dark and the entire apartment is silent. Mom has crawled under the covers next to me and is softly snoring. On my bedside table lay her wig and long false eyelashes. I rarely get to see the tight little curls of her natural hair or her face free of lipstick and butterfly lashes. Like this, she looks young. She looks so pretty. And, like this, I think I can see my face in hers.
Mom and I overslept! It’s all because of that late-night fighting. And now I’m going to be late. Wouldn’t you know it’d happen on the first day at my new school!
We race through our morning routine. Hummingbirds on fast-forward. No time for the first-day-of-school feast she’d promised. Corned beef hash and eggs, buttered toast and strawberry jam. Instead, it’s Cap’n Crunch, two quick braids for my hair, brushed teeth, and out the door we go.
My new school is easily within walking distance, but there’s no time for that. We hop in the car and Mom zips through side streets and rolls past stop signs. We hear the bell ring just as she screeches up to the gate.
“Okay, Stevie. The front office is right there.” She points. “Tell them your name and that you’re a new sixth grader. They’ll tell you where to go. I love you.” She plants a kiss on my forehead.
“Wish me luck,” I say, dread churning the juices of my stomach.
“You don’t need luck! It’s going to be a great day,” she says and turns me to the wolves.
I scurry through the gates, but as I’m passing the handball courts, I take a look over my shoulder. Mom is waiting and watching, just like I knew she would be. She waves and mouths, “Hurry up!”
I grin and give her one last wave. But as I approach the building, windows from the classrooms are filled with curious faces, all inspecting the late girl. The new girl. My grin quickly fades.
I always used to feel bad for new kids. They reminded me of baby chicks, freshly kicked from the nest, staggering to make their way around on wobbly legs. I don’t think there’s anything worse.
And now, that baby bird is me.
Once I’m inside, they make me wait in the office for what seems like an eternity while they locate my paperwork. Across from me sits a miserable-looking girl with a green snot ball hanging just below her left nostril. She’s all mouth breathing and red-eyed. The snot ball moves up and down with her every breath.
Someone send that girl home!
Finally I’m summoned. “Come with me, Stephanie.” A woman with short-cropped hair, a turtleneck, and an overbite walks me down a long, dark hall.
“Excuse me,” I say. “No one calls me that. It’s ‘Stevie.’”
She glances back at me without missing a step.
“Like the boy’s name?”
“Well, no. It’s ‘Stevie,’ short for Stephanie.”
“ ‘Steph’ is short for Stephanie. Or ‘Annie.’” She gives me a quick once-over like maybe there’s a name tag or a neon sign that bears the proper spelling of my name. As she jots something on the paper she’s carrying, she laughs to herself and says, “Suit yourself. If you don’t mind having a boy’s name.”
When we get to the classroom—an outdoor bungalow—Overbite Lady opens the door for me. I step inside and she gives the teacher a big fake smile.
“Stephanie Stevie Morrison,” she says, handing the teacher my papers. The teacher nods to her and she promptly leaves, closing the door behind her without a word to me. No “Good luck” or “Catch you later” or even one of those phony smiles. She just dumps me off like I’m a sack of hot garbage.
I should’ve tripped her on her way out.
My teacher seems nice enough, though.
Mrs. Quakely is all teeth. She’s got a huge smile. And she’s super tall with feet that I’m pretty sure are bigger than my dad’s.
“What a pleasure to meet you, Stevie,” she says, stooping low, eyeballs wide and white as golf balls. She stands upright, takes hold of my shoulders, and turns me to face the firing squad. The kids in the class have been staring throughout our exchange, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. As soon as Mrs. Quakely announces, “Class, we have a new victim!” I hear the boys snicker and the sandpaper-scraping sound of girls whispering. “This is Stevie. Show her love.” And with that, she directs me to a desk front and center of the class. My cheeks flush hot and I turn to Mrs. Quakely, and then gesture to the empty desk in the rear corner of the room. I bat my eyelashes like Bugs Bunny, but she ignores my silent request for a seat out of the spotlight.
“This seat will be perfect!” she says, beaming.
Morning lessons start with history, and we each have to reach into a hat and pick a slip of paper with the name of the president of the United States that we’ll be doing a report on. I was pretty sure after studying US presidents at my old school that I knew all of them. I know that George Washington was the first and Lincoln was the sixteenth. I know the difference between Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that Benjamin Franklin was not a president, no matter how much the boys in class wanted to insist that he was… a whole bunch of stuff. But when I lift my slip of paper from the hat, I see a name that’s as familiar to me as hieroglyphics.
Huh? Who the heck is that?
Around the room, kids start calling out who they picked.
“John Adams! Yes! Second president!”
“I got you beat! George Washington!”
“Andrew Jackson!” calls out one boy. “Twenty-dollar bill, baby!”
As they all compare and share their knowledge of each other’s picks, I pray that my boring pick of a president isn’t any indication of how this school year is going to go.
At recess, there’s the usual interest in the “new kid.” I know all about this sort of interest, but I’m reminded again that in the past, I’ve always been the one checking out the newbie.
The kids pass me with examining eyes, like they’re taking in a new species or something. Is it a lobster? A crawfish? Is a scorpion a crustacean? Whatever it is, is it nice? Is it safe? I pretend their prying eyes don’t bother me and instead wander over to the tetherball game.
At my old school, I was tetherball champ. Nobody could beat me. But I guess it’d be pretty weird for me to announce that now, so I plop down and watch. It isn’t long before I figure out that the girl they call “Ally” is the champ around here. Her tangle of brown-and-gold waves whips across her face with every pounding of the ball, but she doesn’t seem to mind. The other girls are more careful, studying the whiplash swirl of the ball, determined to find the best and most accurate way to attack it. But Ally is just ferocious. SMACK! SLAM! She doesn’t wait or think. She STRIKES. And before the girl with the tidy yellow bowl haircut can land a fist on the ball, it’s already wrapped itself completely round the pole and Ally has won again.
“Next!” she calls and shoots a look my way, but I quickly turn my head and pretend to be watching a group of boys wrestling each other nearby.
“My turn!” Another girl leaps from the blacktop to challenge Ally.
“Hurry up, then, Rachel!” says Ally.
Rachel is skinny as a zipper and wispy as the straight brown hair that hurries down her back to her butt. As she floats over to Ally, I’m pretty sure the champ is gonna finish her before she even lays a hand on the ball.
Rachel nods and Ally SLAPS the ball hard.
It’s ONE whip around the pole. Rachel’s wide eyes and bony arms struggle to coordinate. But she misses her chance and Ally POUNDS it again.
TWO whips around. Rachel’s arm is up high, but not fast enough to touch the ball.
THREE whips around. The ball is now traveling so fast that Ally just pushes it. Rachel’s eyes can’t keep up with it.
FOUR. FIVE. SIX.
“That wasn’t fair,” Rachel huffs. “I wasn’t ready.” Ally ignores her and turns to me. This time I don’t turn away fast enough.
“You wanna play?” she asks.
“Uh…” I look behind me to be sure it’s me she’s talking to.
“I’ll go easy on you since you’re new,” she says. And that’s all I need to get me up on my feet.
On my way to the ball, three boys I recognize from my class head straight for me. The two picking up the rear are shoving a rag doll of a kid toward me and laughing. Even floppy boy manages to giggle.
“Hey, you!” one of them calls to me and pushes the kid again. “He likes you!”
This makes the boys crack up and the rag doll blush.
I feel my cheeks flush red too, but it’s not because I like him or think he actually likes me or anything. I barely recognize him from the sea of gawking faces from when Mrs. Quakely introduced me to the class. The only reason I probably remember him at all is because he’s Black. The only other Black kid besides me in our class, so naturally, the other boys want to pair us up. To them, we match. Like shoes.
“Beat it, Kenny,” Ally says. “We’re playing a game.”
“Shut up, Ally!” the boy called Kenny hisses.
“Make me,” she says, and without a hint of hesitation drops the ball and takes two steps forward.
“You’ve just got a bug up your butt ’cause your parents got a divorce!” Kenny taunts. But even though Ally’s cheeks turn pink, she doesn’t budge.
Kenny finally rolls his eyes, and he and his sidekick turn and walk off.
“Never mind them. They’re just punks,” Ally says to me, then turns to the third boy. “Marcus, you shouldn’t let them push you around like that.”
But Marcus only shrugs and runs off to the opposite end of the playground. To its big, empty field. Far from swings, handball courts, and bullies.
Ally sighs and turns back to me. “You ready?”
I nod, and as I do I feel a couple of sprinkles land on my face. The sky is pretty gray, but Mom didn’t say anything about rain.
“You know how to play?” Ally asks, holding up the ball. I nod.
“I think so,” I say, trying to hide my smile.
The sprinkles quickly become droplets, and then full-on rain, but by that time, Ally and I are neck and neck in what has fast become a real competition. A crowd has even gathered to watch.
“Okay, this is 6-6,” she says. “The winner of this one wins the championship!” Her wild, wavy hair has gone flat, and I can feel my soaked braids hanging heavy at my ears. But before she can toss the ball up to start the next game, I hear a voice in the distance and see the crowd start running for our classroom. Mrs. Quakely is standing outside the door with a polka-dot umbrella, motioning for everyone to get inside and out of the rain. Ally sighs, grins at me, then drops the ball and runs for class.
“Next time!” she says. I give her a nod and a smile. That was fun. Next time. I’m already looking forward to it.
Back in the classroom, tucked in and cozy against the downpour, I’ve buried my face in a really good book for quiet reading time. My hand absently goes to stroke one of my braids… and I realize there’s no braid there at all. The hair band that secured the end of it is gone. Probably swimming in a puddle on the playground. I move my hand across the top of my head. My hair is still damp from the rain, but it’s drying rapidly now—and it seems the band from the other braid is swimming in that same puddle outside somewhere, because both braids have come completely loose, and my drying hair is rising UP and OUT.
I try to press it down, to make it lay flat, but I know better. The drier it gets, the bigger it’s going to get. And there’s no use braiding it again. It won’t hold without clips or bands. In a class of straight- and wavy-haired kids, my hair is loud. It screams to be noticed, singled out. I’m already the new kid. I don’t need another KICK ME sign on my back.
I’m doing my best to flatten my ’fro when Mrs. Quakely calls from the old upright piano in the corner. “Okay, sixth graders! Close those books and meet me for song time!” She claps her hands and smiles at the clock. Only twenty minutes of class left. Maybe my hair can behave just a little longer.
We gather around, on chairs and on the floor, circling Mrs. Quakely, who strikes up a bouncy tune on the piano.
“Rachel, be a fabulous young lady and hand out a song sheet to everyone,” she says, motioning her wide chin to a stack of papers on top of the piano. When I get mine, I only have a moment to glance at the words before Mrs. Quakely begins.
We’re off to a clumsy start, but soon we pick up the melody and the words to what has to be the most ridiculously silly song I have ever heard, let alone sung along to. All about a billboard that’s been torn to shreds by weather and now none of what it says makes sense. Or, rather, it makes the craziest kind of sense.
“Smoke Coca-Cola cigarettes, Drink Wrigley’s Spearmint beer”???
Even though the song is beyond corny, Mrs. Quakely sits up very straight at the piano, pleasantly smiling throughout as though she were leading the church choir in Sunday service. And somehow that makes the song even funnier. In no time, the entire class has the giggles.
Mrs. Quakely does her best to guide us back.
“Keep it together, people. You’re doing so well!”
We finally gather ourselves, and by the time we’ve laughed our way through two more crazy songs, I have forgotten all about my hair. All I can think of are my sore cheeks. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed so hard. But when the bell rings and I’m pushing myself up from the rug, I’m reminded.
“Whoa!” Kenny is patting my head and I’m suddenly aware of how completely dry my hair is. How big and full it has become. “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” he says.
Please don’t squeeze the Charmin?
Ugh. It’s the line from that stupid toilet paper commercial.
“Even more squeezably soft!” He scrunches a chunk of my hair. “It’s so fluffy,” he says, laughing.
Before I have a chance to say anything or to knock him away, more hands join in. Patting my hair. Grabbing handfuls. All of them laughing and chiming in with Kenny.
“Can I touch it?” a girl asks, her fingers already pushing through my kinks. Fists curling around it. More hands are squeezing, poking, exploring.
“It’s like cotton candy!”
“Looks like a dandelion puff!”
“Okay—” I do my best to remind them that there’s a person attached to my cotton top, but no one seems to hear me. Or maybe they just don’t care.
I try to stand upright but can’t do it with the crowd hovering over me.
“I’m gonna make a wish!” Kenny’s sidekick Donald says, then proceeds to blow a spittle-laced stream of hot air at the side of my head.
“Quit it!” I hear myself shout.
“Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” Kenny sings again, and this time a couple of other kids sing along. Then, all at once, the voices stop. The hands are gone and it’s only my arms shielding my head.
“What are you all up to? Go on! Get! Class dismissed!” Mrs. Quakely commands as she lifts me from the floor by my raised arms. “I’m ashamed of you,” she barks at the dispersing crowd. Most hang their faces as they hurry off, but a few share looks of amazement before they stroll away. None take so much as a glance back at the petting zoo that was my head.
Mrs. Quakely turns to me.
“You okay? Sorry about that, Stevie. I guess being cooped up from the rain has turned everyone a little crazy.”
I nod, but I don’t think any of that had to do with the rain.
Hello?” I call into our house, but clearly no one’s around. Mom’s car isn’t out on the street, and Dad is never here this time of day. Of all the days for no one to be here when I get home. I could really use a hug.
“Meow.” It’s my orange tabby, Elvis.
“Hey there, boy,” I say, scooping him into my arms and climbing the stairs. “Wanna hear about my lame day?”
Once upstairs, I hit my parents’ room. I think a little dress-up might be just the medicine I need after today.
The row of faceless Styrofoam heads on Mom’s dresser, each topped with a fancy hairdo, offers up the different “me’s” I can choose from.
There’s the “Pixie.” “She’s playful and edgy.”
There’s the “Pageboy.” Which should be called the “Toadstool” since it looks like a mushroom sat on your head.
And then there’s the “Ava.” Shiny shoulder-length waves. Pure movie star. Named for possibly the most glamorous actress of the 1950s: Ava Gardner. Yes. This is what I need right now. It’s gotta be Ava.
Getting my big ’fro to fit under Mom’s wig cap is serious work, but after a good amount of shoving and sweating and an army of bobby pins, I manage to hide it all.
Once the wig’s on, I enter Mom’s closet of magic. Bold-patterned dresses, gold lamé blouses, and satin gloves can turn me into anyone I want. A beauty queen, a showgirl, Nefertiti.
My best friend, Jennifer, and I used to dress up in my mom’s clothes all the time. We’d act out scenes from our favorite movies. Sometimes we’d even sit Mom down on the living room couch and put on full shows with props and everything.
My mom’s maxi dresses with long skirts that sweep the floor when we walk are Jennifer’s favorites.
“They make me feel like a princess,” she always said. I prefer dressing up like the tough dames from the old movies. Bette Davis. Barbara Stanwyck.
I wonder how Jennifer’s first day of school went. If she got kooky old Mr. Hutchinson like she’d hoped. Jennifer and I have been in the same class since the third grade, and before we moved across town this past summer, we lived across the street from each other, and I would see her every day. The last time I saw her was in swim class when she was hanging out with snooty old Trina Carlson and Melinda Whatshername. But I ducked out early on account of having failed to swim across the big pool and graduate to Fish. I chickened out. It’s eight feet deep! Mrs. Salway was going to make me swim in the baby pool with all the little-kid Polliwogs. There was no way I was doing that.
But I never got to say goodbye to Jennifer.
I tried calling her after, but it seemed like she was never home, and then she went to England with her family for the last couple months of summer.
But it’s fall now. She’s got to be back and in school.
I should try her again.
“Hi, Lizzie. It’s Stevie,” I say when Jennifer’s little sister answers the phone. “Is Jennifer there?”
- “Stevie's path to empowerment is both touching and inspiring. This captivating read is an honest reminder of where we've been and what we've overcome; it is an absolute gem!”—Lisa Moore Ramée, author of A Good Kind of Trouble
- "A relationship-driven novel that is strongest in its portrayal of one girl’s journey."—Kirkus Reviews
- "It’s a compelling, complicated story that touches on huge topics—racist microaggressions, police profiling, feminism, divorce—but keeps it all focused through Stevie’s wonderfully compassionate and curious lens. A fascinating and intimate snapshot of familial and personal transformation and the power in finding your voice."—Booklist
- "Told through a spirited first-person perspective, this earnest novel by Parsons (How High the Moon) seamlessly connects key historical moments during the Black Power movement, social politics, and evergreen tween conflicts surrounding agency and independence."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jul 11, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers