Holding Fast to High-Flying Dreams

Holding Fast to High-Flying Dreams

“Y’all step away from her. She’s fresh from Alabama,” Ebony-Grace’s father warns the neighborhood kids after her arrival in New York City’s Harlem. “She’s gonna need her space.”

In Ibi Zoboi’s MY LIFE AS AN ICE CREAM SANDWICH (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 256 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up) the rising seventh grader Ebony-Grace Norfleet Freeman does indeed need her space — outer space. It’s where she’s happiest, making up missions inside the “imagination location” of her mind as “E-Grace Starfleet, space cadet on the Mothership Uhura.”

The nod to Lieutenant Uhura (the communications officer portrayed by the African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on the original 1960s “Star Trek” series) is just one of many popular science-fiction references woven into Ebony-Grace’s interior world. She’s also entranced by Wonder Woman, “Star Wars” and Superman, much to the dismay of her mother, who has warned Ebony-Grace that as she’s becoming a “young lady,” it’s “time to do away with comic books and childish stories.”

It’s the summer of 1984 and Ebony-Grace is up from Huntsville to spend part of her vacation with her father in Harlem, while her mother and beloved grandfather attend to some unpleasant family business. The separation is particularly rough because the girl idolizes her Granddaddy, one of the first black engineers at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a gleeful participant in the space-fantasy worlds they create together.

Ebony-Grace’s imagination location is often rendered as comic-book pages scattered throughout the text, giving the reader a peek into her whirring mind, full of intergalactic adventures and dialogue inspired by “Star Trek” movies and Parliament funk songs. (Some of Zoboi’s late-20th-century cultural references may be lost on younger readers, but Generation X parents will enjoy them.)

It soon becomes clear that Ebony-Grace’s biggest challenge is leaving her imagination location for reality-based interaction with those around her, and it drives her story. When she’s reunited with her Harlem friend Bianca Perez after three years, it’s evident that Bianca has outgrown the starship games they once played in a local junkyard. Ebony-Grace has not.

The twin towers are still standing downtown, but uptown in Harlem and the Bronx, hip-hop, rap battles and break dancing are creating a vibrant culture. Drawn to the hip-hop scene, Bianca and the neighborhood girls are far more interested in performing in a local contest under ice-cream-inspired nicknames like Butter Pecan Bianca of the Nine Flavas Crew than in dealing with the new girl’s awkward interstellar whims. With her nerdy ways and lack of dance talent, Ebony-Grace is called “Ice Cream Sandwich,” a freezer-section variation of the old “chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside” insult.

Her presence is also noted with “There goes that weird girl.” Depending on one’s own childhood, reading Ebony-Grace’s story may feel incredibly strange or deeply familiar. Science-obsessed but missing (or ignoring) social cues, she’s not the easiest of characters to follow at times, but her flawed grandfather is her lodestar and her dedication is absolute. Leaving interpretation to the reader, Zoboi doesn’t reveal if her protagonist is clinically neurodivergent or has developmental challenges. But it doesn’t matter. Ebony-Grace is a fresh voice and a highly memorable character trying to navigate life in her own way.

While her fantasy-fueled outbursts lead to a number of uncomfortable situations, her stubborn refusal to conform is admirable for anyone who’s rebelled against the social pressure to blend in with the crowd — especially in the tumultuous middle-school years. Ebony-Grace’s boundless faith in her dreams also brings to mind another high-flying science enthusiast who once advised, “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” That speaker was Mae C. Jemison, an engineer, medical doctor, astronaut and the first African-American woman to go into space.

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