Angela Johnson - Looking For Red

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Dec 4, 2002 (Updated Feb 2, 2003)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Michaela's touching story of her brother's death will melt your warm heart with iced tears.


The Bottom Line: Death is a universal theme involving grief. Michaela grieves by sharing the memories of her beloved brother. Her story offers a splash of relief in an ocean of pain.

The primary mission of this book review is to not only provide you with a summary of the plot, but to also include instructional tools for using this novel in the classroom, as well as a critique of the author’s writing style.

In “Looking For Red,” Angela Johnson has painted the precious African American twelve-year-old Michaela with powerful brushstrokes. Three glowing descriptive red ruby gems include the following: wisdom, courage, and an unusual inner resiliency. Deepak Chopra once remarked, “In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” One of Michaela’s remarkable talents is her uncanny ability to remain still in the midst of chaos. More specifically, it is the chaos surrounding the loss of her brother Red, which haunts her incessantly. Red died in a storm while fishing as she sensed intuitively early on. Here is an example of her piercing intuition-

“I stood on our widow’s walk and watched as he pulled porgies out of the bay, waving to me. I worried that a storm would come up again, this time taking Red away forever and beyond.”

Thus, her premonition or fear of Red’s death proved to be true.

Here is another example of Michaela’s anxieties and intuition-

“I used to get this sick feeling all over as they flew off into the water. I was still a little scared of everything I couldn’t see. And that included everything underneath the waves. They never asked me to come with them. Never. Red said that it wasn’t that he thought I’d be too scared. (I was.) He said it was something him and Mark always did together.”

These two crucial passages not only reflect Michaela’s astonishing intuitive precocity towards death, but they also function as a foreshadowing device, which is salient throughout the story.

As a result of Red’s death, Michaela instantly bonds with Mona, who was Red’s girlfriend, during this time of unexpected adversity. As a coping mechanism, Mona drives her car over to Red’s driveway during the evenings, which evinces more evidence of her struggle to let go. They both visit an oceanography institute together, which turns out to be psychologically purging since the exhibit triggers forth memories of Red’s death. In fact, Michaela is practically paralyzed with pain and fear during her visit. Mona lifts up her spirits by offering the gift of empathy. Thus, their new friendship has a consoling and cathartic force. Here is a sweet sentiment, “Red’s girlfriend, Mona, has big brown eyes and always puts her arms around me when I get close enough. She smells like powered sugar and strawberry licorice." This multisensory description evinces Johnson's poetic writing style, which is laced with mystery, pain, and pleasure.

However, they are not the only characters that mourn the loss of Red. Mark also misses Red so much that he tries to commit suicide by driving his car into a seafood restaurant. It was the same place where he and Red once devoured clams replete with juicy lemons. As a caustic result, Mark is hospitalized and finds life absolutely unbearable without Red. Hence, Michaela, Mona, and Mark help each other to heal through friendship, the sharing of memories, and open discussions about Red which reflect the quintessence of this African Proverb, “The friends of our friends are our friends.”

The structure of “Looking For Red” is neatly divided into the following four sections:





These are not simply generic topics. Instead, they symbolize the stages of grief and healing that Michaela, Mona, and Mark undergo. Professional grief counselors claim that the stages of grieving involve the following eight steps:









Indeed Angela Johnson does an outstanding job in treating each disparate step as an obstacle for her characters to cope with and eventually overcome. For example, here is a passage that reflects Michaela’s shock, emotional release, and a tinge of bittersweet panic, which is eloquently written-

“The magic leaves and out of nowhere I start crying harder than I have since I threw flowers in the ocean for my brother three months ago. When I was little, I used to throw this red-and-yellow ball out into the surf. It always came back. Mostly everything that got taken away with the waves came back. I expected it. I knew it to be true. Red didn’t come back. He’s still out there.”

Thus, it takes a long time to heal which mirrors the essence of this African Proverb, “The moon moves slowly, but it crosses the town.” The color of this beautiful hardcover book is blue and the spine is red. On the cover we see a picture of Michaela in the foreground while Cape Cod is situated in the background. Miniscule blue dots are suspended above her head. The spectator may deduce that these are tiny water bubbles or salty tears of sadness, but they are not. They signify Red’s blue beads, which function as a catalyst for Michaela to cherish his memory. For example, here Michaela reflects on the beads in this passage-

“I lie on my belly, eye level, and go into them. Living in a blue-bead world with air bubbles just dancing through my head. I could lie there for hours. I do.”

A tender universality about death and dying is evoked in this tastefully crafted climactic scene between Michaela’s Aunt Caroline and Frank, who suggested that Michaela return back to school. Caroline gets up and walks across to the picture window looking out onto the ocean and says, “How is she supposed to get on with it, Frank? Is she supposed to snap her fingers and stop missing her brother? Is she supposed to make believe, or go through all of this in a timely fashion?”

These three very important questions are central to the story and are directly applicable to all those who have lost a loved one and are in a fresh stage of grieving. Presumably those who are mourning the loss of a loved one will especially be able to identify with this type of pain. In fact, educators may wish to treat Jacqueline Woodson’s “Miracle’s Boys” & “Looking For Red” as a literary diptych for the following three reasons: One, Lafayette Bailey, the main character in “Miracle’s Boys,” lost both of his parents. Thus, Michaela and Lafayette are grieving over the loss of a family member. Secondly, both authors effectively adopt the use of episodic memory to tell the story. This type of memory is the recall of events, in detail and sequence. By incorporating authentic vignettes, vivid flashbacks, and family photographs, the characters are better able to connect with their past which paradoxically allows them to move forward. Another technique that they both employ is the use of "italics" to call attention to an important event. For example, in chapter twenty-three one is invited to read a private missive written by Mark to Red typed in italics. Similarly, Woodson uses italics in chapter nine in order to slow down the reader so that they can better absorb the pain involved in a victorious rescue of a lady and her dog from the frozen water.

e.e. cummings wrote, “Cut these words and the bleed.” Painfully speaking, the words that Johnson and Woodson carefully select “do bleed” and cut your heart asunder. Finally, both Lafayette and Michaela use effective coping strategies to heal such as therapy, honest discussions, and facing their pain instead of wallowing in self-pity and denial. Thus, they are role models for others to emulate. Why? They avoid the perilous use of drugs, sex, or excuses to escape from their pain, which we all know is the easy way out. Instead, they confront it head on! They cling tenaciously to their convictions. Still, other educators may wish to investigate and study the plot of David Almond’s amazing “Skellig” in conjunction with “Looking For Red” because there are a plethora of parallels and themes that overlap such as grief, spirituality, mystery, death, and the pros and cons of school. Another excellent didactic idea is to juxtapose a passage taken from Ntozake Shange’s unique play- “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf: A Choreopoem” with a passage from Angela Johnson’s text "Looking For Red," since their poetic writing styles are strikingly similar. Their artistic and creative expression shines through which leaves the door wide open for the possibility of conducting formal writing workshops replete with peer-editing strategies as Nancie Atwell suggests. Educators could use the technological tool “INSPIRATION” as a pre-writing strategy, which affords the students a wonderful opportunity to create concept maps. These maps can be converted into an outline form as well. This type of brainstorming is ideal and could help them prepare for the writing portion of their standardized tests, which is always useful.

A wise educator will not only position the theme of “grief” as the centerpiece of the workshop, but he/she will also put a multicultural unique spin on this theme by asking the following key questions: How do African Americans and Puerto Ricans grieve for a loved one? How do the Hmong and Asian Americans grieve either collectively or individually? Are there specific universal characteristics that bind us together during death and adversity? What coping strategies would an Algerian family adopt in the midst of tragic deaths? How would a Jewish family grieve for the loss of a family member in the midst of routine terrorist attacks on Israel? Students from India may posit that death is not the “end” but a “new” beginning since reincarnation often plays a hopeful role instead of a dismal one. In the end, it is worthwhile to explore how others grieve from a multicultural international perspective. Looking through this cultural lens will afford students a thorough investigation into the issues of diversity, race, class, cultural values, and traditions. The text “Looking For Red” is the perfect catalyst to open up this type of investigation or discussion, which was recently explored during the tragic events on 9/11. We, as a nation, are still processing the residual effects, which mirrors the essence of this famous quote from Hamlet's suicide speech: "The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." Despite all of our differences, death remains the ultimate unifying force.

Have you read “Heaven” and “Toning The Sweep” written by Angela Johnson? Both of these books earned the "Coretta Scott King Author Award!" In addition, “The Other Side, The: Shorter Poems” is a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book and could be easily included in a writing workshop as well. Young children will treasure her story “When I am Old With You.” Angela Johnson’s versatile writing style has been described as being both “spare and evocative” which it is. However, it is one thing to use an economy of words and quite another to select meaningful words that have a profound impact or density to them. So, although her writing style is “spare” it is also “dense” which leaves the reader in a much deeper state of contemplation. Interestingly enough, “Publishers Weekly” wrote - "While the elegiac pace and impressionistic prose may challenge many readers, those mourning a loss are likely to find Mike's (short for Michaela) incisive observations familiar and comforting."

I can assert unequivocally that Johnson's "elegiac pace and impressionistic prose" only adds a slice of elegance to the bittersweet tragedies while leaving the reader mystified in the process. If you possess a voracious appetite for reading essays, then presumably you have devoured Fitzgerald’s famous essay, “The Crack-up” or Joan Didion’s “Good-bye to all that.” Perhaps you have read Elizabeth’s Smart’s novel “By Grand Central Station I Laid Down and Wept.” Currently educators are asking their students to read “The Rose and the Beast” by Francesca Lia Block in order to explore fairy tales and the fantasy genre which is exciting and creative! Still, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee” adopts the use of a rich multigenre writing style as she weaves Korean history into a memorable discontinuous fabric. Yes, these authors each possess this uncanny ability to write succinctly and lyrically. Yes, they use the power of three’s to hook or lure you, the reader, in while injecting style into the piece. Ironically, Johnson also adopts the “power of three’s” and is quite lyrical and versatile in the creative process. She adopts the use of alliteration and word repetition, which is effective too. Here is some poetic examples-

“He looked at me straight in the eye when he asked how I was doing, like I couldn’t have been better than his broken, bruised self. I sat down in the chair beside him and grabbed hold of his hand.” These three words, "better," "broken," & "bruised" all reflect alliteration in the "b’s," which has didactic potential in the classroom. You may envision writing exercises, poetry tasks, and jigsaw cooperative learning tasks.

In addition, the repetition of using the word “remember” four times is conducive to establishing a poetic pattern. For instance, “I remember that the sun was so warm and bright that I fell asleep on the pier beside Red. I remember that Red had a big-iced soda sitting next to me when I awoke. I remember that the fish we didn’t cook on the beach grills we gave to the gulls. And finally, I remember that kids didn’t tell.”

The only element that is somewhat questionable is Johnson’s brief allusion to ghosts. For example, “But this is just to let you know. They’ve been hanging around here for a long time. The ghosts. So it isn’t so unbelievable that they’re around us now. But I guess not everybody would believe what I just said. They’d call it the imagination of a child. A story.” The use of ghosts, in this particular context, just doesn’t serve a manifest function. The invisible ghost of Red should take center stage in the memories of Michaela, Mona, Mark and others. Thus, the invisible ghost, or the haunting memory of Red should supersede the visible ghost of Red. During several occasions Michaela claims to actually see Red. For example, “I see him, you know? I see Red everywhere and I think that I’m losing my mind. I don’t say anything ‘cause it’s to scary to think that maybe Red isn’t just in my imagination.” This claim of seeing Red can either increase their credibility or mince their overall ability to convey the veracity. Ultimately, the truth is left up to the reader’s spiritual belief system, which is more empowering. Presumably, Johnson knew this fact and left it open for interpretation instead of putting closure on it, which was a wise decision indeed.

In closing, what is most pleasurable about reading “Looking For Red” is the dual nature of the ocean. On the one hand, Michaela lost her beloved brother Red in the ocean. Thus, water is tantamount to death. It causes fear, triggers forth-tragic memories, and forces one to harbor secrets. For example, here Michaela elects not to tell Aunt Caroline about how her friends almost died searching for Red.

“I don’t tell Caroline how we had to hold Mark back from jumping into the rocks, or how I couldn’t move and thought I’d never stop screaming. I don’t tell her how Mona climbed down the pier and almost drowned herself. Looking for Red.”

On the other hand, it heals (breeze), consoles (mist), and nurtures (tranquility). One feels immersed into the setting of Cape Cod through Johnson’s imagery, which evokes a sensory response. Thus, the setting helps to establish the mood and tone of the story. Meanwhile, it almost takes on a separate life of its own. For instance, the ocean’s healing properties seem to purify Michaela in the midst of her sorrows. She often remarks that she can both taste and feel the ocean, which seems to emotionally engulf her at times which is more mystical than analytical.

In addition, “Looking For Red” has cinematic potential. It would not surprise me if a screenplay were already in the works since Johnson paints each scene with vivid potent memories; the characters possess a disparate personality; and the setting at Cape Cod is given an artistic dual haunting nature of its own.

Michaela claims that she will “always” miss Red, and we believe her. After all, the words “always and forever” signify a universal timeless quality. The most bittersweet line that is guaranteed to evoke salty tears in the reader is this- “I’d do anything, anything, to have Red back.”

Since hope was the last gift left in Pandora’s box and is also the final stage of grieving, I will now close with a hopeful African Proverb-

“The cricket cries, the year changes.”

Recommend this product? Yes

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