- Alisa Williams
Review: My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Happy pub day to Ibi Zoboi’s My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, which hits shelves today, August 27, 2019. I meant to get this post up a few weeks ago, but life got a bit crazy, so here it is now!
Twelve-year-old Ebony Grace Norfleet has lived in Birmingham, Alabama for as long as she can remember, with her mother and her grandfather, one of the first black engineers at NASA. Her grandfather, Jeremiah, is her best friend, and using their "imagination locations" they go on all sorts of outer space adventures together as E-Grace Starfleet and Captain Fleet. But during the summer of 1984, when there's trouble with Jeremiah, Ebony Grace is sent to live with her father in Harlem, a city with lights and sounds and people that all seem like aliens on a different planet compared to the quiet country town she's from.
Ebony Grace refuses to come out of her "imagination location," much to the aggravation of everyone around her — her father, her would-be friends, church folk, and more. Ebony wants to build a rocket ship, fly off to save her grandfather, and get out of this "No Joke City" as fast as she can, and from the moment she arrives, that's what she plots to do, leading to all sorts of problems along the way.
What I Liked:
I absolutely loved Zoboi's debut, the young adult novel American Street, which I read just a couple of months ago, and so I was eager to read how she handles middle grade fiction. My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich is infused with the personality, creativity, and richly detailed characters I've come to expect from Zoboi's writing. Ebony Grace's struggle with shedding childhood is intricately shown. She lived a sheltered, privileged life down in Alabama and wasn't exposed to either the beauty or ugliness of a place like Harlem. The girls she meets in New York have had to grow up fast and Zoboi does an excellent job of showing the reader this through Ebony Grace's eyes, even though Ebony Grace can't see it herself. To her, these girls just have no imagination location and are "little street urchins" she should stay away from, according to her mother.
But what Ebony Grace comes to learn is that imagination looks different on different people, and just because these girls don't care about outer space or Star Trek doesn't mean they aren't just as imaginative and creative as she is — it's just going to look different on them.
What I didn't like:
Ebony Grace was a frustrating narrator. Because she is locked in her imagination location for almost the entirety of the book, we see a skewed and often confusing unfolding of events. At times, it was difficult to understand what was really happening from reading Ebony Grace's interpretation, and I wished we could step outside her head once in awhile to get better clarity on what was actually going on.
Compounding the confusion was that Ebony Grace's imagination location is multi-layered. She is an astronaut exploring strange lands and trying to save Captain Fleet from the evil Sonic King who has him trapped on Planet Boom Box. She is also a prisoner trapped with her father, the evil King Sirius Julius on the planet No Joke City. She flip flops between these two similar filters in describing everything and everyone around her and it made for tough reading at times as I tried to remember what was what.
The plot with her grandfather felt underdeveloped and unresolved. At the beginning of the book, the reader is led to believe that Ebony Grace is being sent up to Harlem because there is "trouble" with her grandfather. It's hinted that this trouble has something to do with his job at NASA, or that maybe it has to do with his fondness for the ladies. At one point early on, when Ebony Grace first gets to Harlem, her father sits her down and tells her she doesn't need to be keeping her grandfather's secrets for him. What??? Ebony Grace is confused by this comment, as was I. And those types of hints are never resolved.
Because of Ebony Grace's limits as a first person narrator, and perhaps her own inability to process what is happening, she isn't able to articulate what is really going on with her grandfather, so it isn't until the last 10 pages or so of the book that we finally find out what the "trouble" actually is. And because what was really happening doesn't appear to have anything to do with what was hinted at throughout the rest of the book, it felt abrupt, with no time to have any sort of emotional reaction to the reveal.
Another aspect left unresolved was the havoc Ebony Grace wreaked on her father's Harlem neighborhood. She behaves pretty badly throughout the book, mouthing off to adults, purposefully injuring the one girl who tries to be nice to her, stealing, and more, but there are no consequences for these actions other than that she further isolates herself from everyone around her and recedes deeper into herself. By book's end, she's on a plane back down South, still locked in her imagination location. Her growth as a character throughout the book was incremental at best, and stagnant at worst.
Lastly, the adults in the book were all infuriating. Her larger-than-life grandfather is barely present in the book, and as stated above, the entire plot line with him (which was supposed to be the driver of the book) is confusing and left me with more questions than answers. Ebony Grace's parents both come across as incredibly selfish and rather heartless, as the only thing they seem able to agree on is keeping Ebony Grace away from her grandfather. If this had been for any of the reasons hinted at throughout the book, it would be understandable, but when the real reason is revealed, it just renders her parents unforgivable, at least for me. Ebony Grace displays very little emotion about anything that happens to her, so it was hard to judge how she felt about what transpired.
Some of the other reviewers have mentioned that they kept thinking there was going to be a mental illness angle in this book, that Ebony Grace was going to be revealed to have autism, and this would be something the characters would have to navigate throughout the book. This was not the case, and I don't believe that was ever the author's intent, though it would have explained a lot about Ebony Grace's actions and inability to connect with those around her.
For me, it felt like the author was trying to show that awkward transition from girlhood to teenagehood and how different circumstances lead different people to make that leap at different times and in different ways. At 12, the girls in Harlem are already behaving like teenagers, caring about things like boys and clothes, while Ebony Grace at 12 is still all about make believe. I think her refusal to come out of her imagination location was her way of dealing with the situation she'd been thrust into that summer — being away from her grandfather (the only person in her life who seems to understand or appreciate her at all), being in a new and overwhelming city with a father she barely knows, and being a rather lonely child in general, with no friends back home and no friends in Harlem.
Mostly, I spent the book feeling more sorry for Ebony Grace than anything else. Yes, she was frustrating, but mostly she was unable to see how her actions were hurting the people around her, and her lack of growth left me disappointed.
I appreciated the creativity of the book, and that it wasn't like anything else I've ever read before. The nods to Star Trek created a very nostalgic feeling for me personally, as I spent my childhood watching that show with my dad. The world-building of 1980s Harlem was beautifully done, and the city felt like its own character come to life. But overall, this was mostly a frustrating read and I wanted more for Ebony Grace than either the people around her or she herself would allow her to have.
This review originally appeared on NetGalley. I received a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for my honest review of this title.
Alisa Williams is the managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org. She blogs at alisawilliamswrites.com, tweets at @AWWritesStories, and bookstagrams at @AllyWritesStories.
Photo by Alisa Williams.