In the middle-grade novel Indigo and Ida by Heather Murphy Capps (Carolrhoda Books, April 2023), teenager Indigo Fitzgerald discovers a biography (with loose personal letters) about the nineteenth-century investigative writer Ida B. Wells. As she reads of Ida’s reporting on frequent lynchings in the South during the post-Reconstruction era, Indigo is inspired to focus her campaign to be student president on real issues in her middle school, especially the racist disciplinary policies of the school’s principal. As she struggles with her dedication to her work and also her rocky friendships, she finds her own strengths and delights in her life’s purpose.
Indigo’s eight grade struggles initially focus on the difficulties of changing friendships as her long-time friends are now drifting away into new interests and friendships. She desperately longs to reunite with them and is delighted to find that her most recent report brings her into the popular school-wide spotlight. But as she focuses on the role of race in her principal’s decisions in her reporting, her “troublesome” and “serious” nature takes away her popularity and she questions what she is fighting for.
At the beginning of Indigo’s story, she finds a biography of Ida B. Wells and personal, signed letters fall out of the book. Her persistence nicely aligns with Ida’s story. Both Indigo and Ida consider themselves investigative reporters. Both are exposed to persistent racism and empathize with those who face such difficulties. While the real Ida wrote about her experiences and wrote for journals and newspapers, Indigo uses a school-district-wide vlogging platform to share her stories. I loved her update to the format.
I appreciated that Indigo’s story made parallels between the unfairness of the school’s racism to the issues facing her friend’s LGBTQ sibling. Her story frame of sharing the historic letters wonderfully tied the fight for civil rights post-Reconstruction into the present. Although in reality, the quoted letters were not actually Ida’s words, they were based on Ida’s own autobiographical writing. The simplified language will help middle-grade readers readily understand her story today.
Indigo and Ida is not without some plot issues for me. First, I loved that Ida’s “glittering” handwriting was an inspiration, but adult-me struggled with the impossibility that letters from this co-founder of the NAACP would remain outside of museums 100 years later, especially since in the novel the original owner of the letters never came to claim the lost book. Any person with such a treasure would have known it and eagerly sought their return. Also, Indigo’s story takes place over just one week, which likewise felt unreal. So much happens in this book, including running an entire student presidential campaign, that I felt months had passed.
For young readers, it’s likely that these plot points will not bother them. I loved that this important “influencer” in American history has been highlighted in a novel of this kind. I believe it’s time I bring her books and her story back to the top of my TBR pile. Can anyone recommend a great biography?