In the exposition, Maya and her younger brother Bailey are sent from California to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandparents. Here, racism is vehement and life for the Johnson siblings is difficult.
Things begin to change one Christmas when Maya and her brother receive presents from their parents. A year later, their father comes to Arkansas and moves his children to Missouri with their mother, Vivan, while on his way to California.
However, Maya's life becomes much worse once in St. Louis. Vivan provides for her children through compensation she obtains from exchanges she has with older men. The family moves into one of these men's' houses, Mr. Freeman.
Mr. Freeman sexually abuses and rapes eight-year-old Maya. Her family discovers what happened, and Mr. Freeman is jailed. Shortly after his release, he found and beat to death. Maya becomes reticent and her and Bailey are sent back to Arkansas.
Back in Arkansas, Maya meets Mrs. Flowers who furthers Maya's zealousness for literature and introduces her to poetry. Maya stands against racism and befriends someone for the first time.
After her brother witnesses a black man's murder at the hands of white men, their grandmother decides to move Bailey and Maya to San Francisco.
Maya's father invites her to spend time with him in southern California. After fighting with her father's girlfriend Dolores, resulting in Maya getting injured, she leaves and returns to San Francisco.
Maya goes on to be San Francisco's first black conductorette. Maya ends up becoming pregnant and gives birth three weeks after her high school graduation. In the resolution, Maya learns she is in fact able to take care of her baby and be a good mother.