The Long Ride, Marina Budhos’ middle-grade novel, interweaves the personal and the political in the story of three mixed-race Queens girls about to start seventh grade in 1971. Jamila Clarke and her two best friends, Josie Rivera and Francesca George, are to be part of an integration experiment, bused an hour away from their predominantly white neighborhood to integrate a new school in South Jamaica.
The author herself grew up in Queens during the period when The Long Ride is set, the daughter of a diasporic Indian from Guyana and a Jewish-American mother. “I was aware of the promise of the early civil rights movement, but now came the time when ordinary people—not the heroes on the frontlines—had to make those subtle changes in their day to day lives.”
Change, identity and belonging are at the heart of The Long Ride. Budhos wanted to write about families of color and mixed-race families “who are constantly navigating for their children. Does a middle-class family move to an apartment building where the father might get stopped in the elevator? What happens when their daughter or son don’t grow up with others who look like them? Where do they belong?” she asks. “I think these internal choices and trade-offs are very visible to families of color; less so to white families.”
Unsurprisingly, the experiment has a profound effect not only on the three girls, but also their entire circle of family and friends. While Jamila and Josie learn to negotiate the complex setting in which they both belong and don’t belong, Francesca’s parents end up sending her to a private school, separating the three friends for the first time. Budhos relates how she “wanted to capture my own experience—being mixed race, having friends who were mixed race, and going to a somewhat tough junior high school where black and white students were not integrated. Many of the experiences in the book,” Budhos says, “were familiar.”
The Long Ride is also a new experience for the author, her first middle-grade novel after writing award-winning adult and YA novels including Watched, Ask Me No Questions, and Tells Us We’re Home. Mastering a new kind of voice was only one of the challenges—the other was the question of agency when it came to young characters with a limited range of independence. “Once I realized that Jamila had a bit of fire and intuitively saw the inequities and racial-class divisions at school,” Budhos says, “I felt I had something that could drive her agency, and thus the storyline.”
Jamila’s narrative is situated at the confluence of big-picture issues and personal experience—making new friends, falling in love, finding her own voice but never losing track of her love for her two best friends.
“I wanted to set Jamila into the trio of friends and capture all those emotions—from wearing the same boots to wanting to both play with dollhouses and be a bit cooler like the older kids to those uneven spurts of sexuality to figuring out how to convert her spunk into something constructive. I also love the fierceness of friendship between girls,” Budhos says.
The Long Ride is a very topical book, and Budhos talks about how, in writing the story and talking to others, she found out how many people were affected by desegregation plans of the era. “We have a whole generation shaped by these efforts, and for all kinds of reasons, we are living in resegregated schools today,” she says. “Why not have a conversation about that period—what we learned? What’s the same? Indeed, I would argue that we are still, in some ways, adjudicating the legacy of that period.”