cover image Toning the Sweep

Toning the Sweep

Angela Johnson. Orchard Books (NY), $15.95 (103pp) ISBN 978-0-531-05476-5

With several picture books already to her credit, Johnson ( When I Am Old with You ) makes an especially promising foray into YA fiction with this thoughtfully nuanced and penetrating novel. Emily, the 14-year-old who serves as the principal narrator, spends a bittersweet few days with her much-loved grandmother, Ola, who lives in the California desert. Ola has been diagnosed with cancer, and Emily and her mother are helping to pack up the house so that Ola can move into their home in Cleveland. Ola, Mama and Emmie, all three African American, are almost extraordinarily resilient and independent, but Johnson portrays them believably. Traits that might have come across as quirky instead seem well integrated as Johnson delicately and gradually unfolds the past events that fostered such inner strength--events including the lynching of Ola's husband in 1964 Alabama. Although plagued by occasional moments of self-importance (``You can't get away from the things that make you sad, Mama says. I believe that. Sad can be bigger than happy sometimes''), the prose is generally understated, gaining added texture from passages narrated by Ola and Mama. Depicting a heroine who learns to balance the most urgent feelings of love and loss, Johnson herself balances powerful themes with poise and skill. Ages 11-up. (Apr.)