The Children’s Book Review | June 13, 2019
Keeping Up with PJ
Written by Don Flournoy
Age Range: 12+
Hardcover: 174 pages
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin University Press (April 25, 2019)
What to expect: Historical Fiction, Segregation, Coming of Age
Keeping Up with PJ is a historical fiction novel that, through chapters that often feel like a story themselves, depicts the coming of age of one Caucasian 14-year-old in a pre-Civil Rights era.
The story is set in the rural south in the summer of 1950. Due to family circumstances, PJ and his brother Roy often find themselves with a lot of spare time to roam their small crossroads community. In one chapter, PJ has reached the age in which he is allowed to do ‘man’s work.’ He works alongside a grown African American man, Guy Stookey, in Mr. Sapp’s cotton gin and comes to discover the hurtful impact that snap judgments can have on a person. In another chapter, as the only Caucasian in the group, he celebrates Juneteenth with the Nettie Johnson family—including his best friend Lee Junior Johnson—and comes to have an understanding of the importance of this celebration of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Each chapter paints a picture of segregation for the reader, while leading toward personal growth for PJ and an unsuspected family change that is revealed toward the end of the book by PJ’s mother, Belle.
The writing is true to the period and points to a happy existence in the rural South. However, there are underlying racial and class tensions that can be gleaned from the usage of racial epithets that are sprinkled in the text. Although the use of such language is difficult to digest, the issues of injustice and bias that are raised are important to discuss. The language used to depict the rural land in which they reside is thorough and inciting: “Ancient bullfrogs with labored voices grouched and groaned and complained for as far as the river was long. Tree frogs, green peepers and katydids, millions and millions of them, spared no effort to outdo each other.”
While the book never tackles civil rights head on, this fictional narrative, from start to finish, subtly conveys positive small steps toward the undoing of segregation. The book can surely be used to spark discussions on questions of discrimination, equality and segregation.
PJ is a conscientious teen and his curiosity, thoughtfulness, and integrity make him an amiable character that readers will surely gravitate toward. The ultimate message conveyed is that understanding and acceptance is the path that will lead us toward humanity.
About the Author
Don Flournoy was born on Shawnee Prairie, Angelina County, Texas in October 1937 in the aftermath of the U.S. Great Depression. In 1958, he earned a BA degree from the Meadows College of Fine Arts, Southern Methodist University, and later completed advanced degrees at the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of London, England. He is the author of multiple scholarly and and professional books and hundreds of professional papers and articles, focusing largely on global telecommunications and media. Now, an Emeritus Professor and Dean, he serves as Editor of www.spacejournal.org, an international journal founded in 2002 in collaboration with the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) and the National space Society (NSS). The novel KEEPING UP WITH PJ is a work of fiction that gained notice when it was selected as first runner-up in the George Garrett Fiction Prize of the Texas Review Press (2017).
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