Genesis Begins Again

Can changing the outside change the inside?

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Genesis has long been scorned by other African American girls for her very dark skin. Charcoal, Ape and Blackie are just a few of the names she allows herself to be called. She’s heard this disgust at her appearance her entire life from peers and her own family and accepts it as truth. Some girls put together a list of 100 Reasons Why We Hate Genesis – and Genesis has begun to add to the list herself. Her fair-skinned mother loves her, but her grandmother lays out chapter and verse of why light-skinned people are naturally superior to those with dark skin. Grandma indulges in colorism, the practice of stereotyping other African Americans based only on how light or dark they are. Genesis’s dark-skinned father is undependable, struggling with addictions and inability to keep a job, reinforcing the negative lessons her grandmother hands down. Her mother is doing her best to keep the family afloat, but Genesis takes it upon herself to try to solve the adults’ problems. She believes being lighter is the first step to making things better for herself and her parents. She tries rubbing lemons on herself, adding bleach to her bathwater, and scouring her skin, enduring physical pain to help heal her emotional pain.

Genesis gets a chance to start over when her father seems to have straightened up and moves the family into a new home in a nice neighborhood. She makes friends at her new school, including a very dark-skinned boy who loves himself and tries to help Genesis understand how to do the same. Support from a music teacher helps Genesis gain self-confidence, but things don’t change overnight. The damage from a lifetime of self-hate doesn’t magically disappear.

The beauty of this book is its complexity. All of the characters are given dimension, which helps us understand their actions.  The concepts of colorism and internalized racism are accessible to middle school aged readers but are not oversimplified. The narrative makes clear that these concepts harm both dark and light skinned people. Genesis deals with typical middle school issues, such as being attracted to the popular crowd, putting up with insults for the sake of friendship, and balancing fitting in with finding yourself. However, the focus remains on the effects of internalized racism and colorism. This tough story is told well, with an optimistic but realistic ending. I hope it leads all of us to think about the messages we’ve absorbed over time and to be more conscious of the harm we may be doing to ourselves and others.

Find Genesis Begins Again at your local bookstore.

Black Enough?

What does that mean? Who gets to decide?

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This collection of stories by some of the best young adult authors writing today examines what it means to be a young black person. Are you still black if you’re a Star Wars nerd? Into tech? A fan of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson? A debate champ who’s also a metalhead? Are open about mental health issues?  Love the outdoors? Wonder if you have to code switch within the black community? These are just a few of the issues teens confront here. As in real life, the young people in these stories are privileged, poor, queer, straight, artistic, insecure, confident, have families that are Afrocentric, and families where blackness is not at the forefront. Black youth coming from all types of backgrounds deal with questions of legitimacy. Although they have different experiences and expectations, they often feel judged against some vague set of standards, making it difficult to feel like they’re “doing it right.”  This raises an important question – is judging a person’s blackness actually buying into stereotypes about ourselves? Regardless, I have no doubt a wide variety of young people will find themselves in these stories. This will also resonate with a lot of adults as one of those “I wish I had this when I was a teen” books.

If you aren’t black, read this book anyway. Anyone from a culture where people feel free to call your authenticity into question will relate to the stories in this collection.

In case you’re still wondering, Ibi Zoboi, editor of this collection, answers the question. She hopes that “…Black Enough will encourage all black teens to be their free, uninhibited selves without the constraints of being black, too black or not black enough.” In other words, the answer is yes, you, in all your nerdy, swaggerific, techy, metal music loving, sneakerheaded, privileged, struggling, code switching self, are black enough.
Click here to buy Black Enough from an independent bookstore!

 

Three Friends, Shifting Feelings…

…and a lot of questions.

39848512Teenagers Courtney Cooper, Rae Chin, and Jupiter Charity-Sanchez form a relationship triangle complicated by questions of sexuality, loyalty and shared trauma. Jupiter and Coop have been best friends since elementary school. African American Coop is straight and Afro-Latinx  Jupe is queer; no one questioned their childhood sleepovers continuing once they  became teens. They have loving, emotionally intimate relationship. Whenever Coop breaks up with a girlfriend Jupe is there to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” for their traditional break up dance party. Chinese-Irish Rae Chin moves to town with her doctor father who works at the same hospital as Coop’s mother. Rae connects with Jupe because they’re both biracial and into community service; they become close. Rae grows close to Coop when she learns they had a shared interest as children which is connected for both of them to the traumatic loss of one of their parents. Coop and Jupe feel confident of their sexuality, but Rae is questioning. She finds herself attracted to both of them, and while her feelings are sincere it takes her time to sort them out. A declaration on Rae’s part leads Jupe to make a difficult and selfish decision, resulting in hurt, anger and for her, confusion.

This is the best book dealing with young people’s sexuality that I’ve ever read. The narrative gives a realistic view of how changing circumstances can lead to confusion even when the answers seem certain. It resists labels, pigeonholing and punishment, and shows even people who care deeply about each other can make hurtful mistakes. The honest and engaging characters avoid stereotypes. The structure of the book, 3 sections told from each teen’s perspective and in their own style, adds depth. The teens’ household configurations – Coop and Rae with single parents, Jupe with her two dads – and their connections with their wider friend groups make the story even richer. Despite the serious elements, this book is fun, and will resonate with many readers.

Odd One Out, Nic Stone, Crown Books

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When Hearts Collide…

…and fictional relationships get real.

36204669Claire Strupke is a devoted fan of Demon Heart, a television show about Smokey, a demon hunter, and Heart, his prey. They’re on opposite sides but are somehow obsessed with each other, and Claire believes the looks they give each other whenever they meet mean something. She has lots of followers on her Tumblr where she writes SmokeHeart slash fan fic* shipping** the two. When she learns the actors who play Smokey and Heart, Forest Reed and Rico Quiroz, and showrunner Jamie Davies are coming to a local comic convention she decides a) she must go, and b) she will find a way to convince Jamie to make SmokeHeart canon, meaning, make the relationship part of the story. At the Demon Heart panel Q&A, Claire asks when Smokey and Heart will realize they’re in love, and if they’ll kiss. Forest ridicules Claire much to the dismay of Rico, Jamie, the crowd of fans – and social media. In an effort to clean up the PR nightmare Forest caused, Claire is invited to join them on the rest of their convention tour. They want her to use her social media platform to make things right with the fandom, but she is more concerned with making SmokeHeart canon. That’s not the only thing Claire has on her mind. She connects with Tess, another Demon Heart fan, in line for the panel and is confused by her attraction to her. While Tess knows she is queer, Claire is not so sure. It turns out Tess is also going to be following the DemonHeart tour, so Claire has one more thing to figure out.

I proudly admit I love comics, fandoms and all geeky things. Ship It did not disappoint. The intensity of fandoms, how they help people connect, and the overwhelming fun of comic conventions are all captured here. The inclusion of weaponized social media adds reality. Claire is white and Tess is African American, but I wish the narrative did a little more to illustrate the diversity of fandoms. Incorporating Claire’s fan fic into the book gives a full picture of her vision of SmokeHeart while at the same time showing how her writing may be part of her questioning her own sexuality. I appreciated how the story stayed complicated, especially in this regard. This is a fun read and will appeal to anyone who enjoys fandoms, seeing people pursue a goal, and sometimes sweet, sometimes difficult early relationships.

* Stories based on existing works which create different plots and relationships between the characters. Slash fan fic contains gay relationships

**Wishing for a romantic relationship between 2 characters not currently together

So Done

Best friends for ever?

35068789Best friends Jamila Phillips and Metai Johnson live in the Pirates Cove housing project. Metai lives with her grandmother. Her African American father and Korean American mother were teenagers when she was born. Her father, now 28, comes around occasionally, is usually high and has never figured out how to be an adult. Her mother is gone from her life entirely.  Jamila lives with her father and 2 brothers; her drug addicted mother has been banned from the home. Her dad is loving, attentive, and does everything he can to make sure they have the best opportunities.  It’s the summer before 8th grade, and Jamila has just come back from spending the last few weeks with her aunts and older sister in The Woods, a nice neighborhood where she gets to live a different kind of life. Where Metai loves the Cove and even enjoys the daily drama, Jamila gets tired of the pettiness and always having to watch her back; she feels like a different person in The Woods. Jamila and Tai are reunited and reconnect with the other girls in their squad, but it’s clear things are changing between them. Jamila doesn’t want to be called by her old nickname, Bean, is excited about continuing her ballet classes, and is looking forward to auditions for a new performing arts program being offered in their community. Tai thinks she should have the right to call Jamila whatever she wants, hates ballet (but loves jazz dance) and is annoyed at Jamila and other Cove friends for getting excited about the program – she sees it as another “let’s help out these ghetto kids” plan that will be gone in a year.  Jamila and Tai also clash over welcoming a new girl into their group. Jamila wants to get to know her, but Tai just wants to be sure the girl knows her place. Jamila and Tai both want to hold on to their friendship but it gets too hard. Eventually they face the real thing causing Jamila to keep her distance from Tai and wanting to leave the Cove – something they both know to be true but have never spoken about.

Jamila and Tai’s story deals with issues many young people confront at this age – friends growing in different directions, seeing the world differently and envisioning different futures for themselves. I really appreciate this not being a simplistic good/bad story, as both girls’ worldviews are respected. Tai successfully navigates her environment, overcoming challenges to make the most of it. Jamila yearns for something different, understanding she may need to leave the Cove to become the person she wants to be. Additionally, this story reminds us that young people have complex lives, some made even more complicated by the adults around them. In the end, we see a realistic journey of these young teens trying to grow up without growing apart.

I can’t end this review without talking about the cover. It is often not the case,  but here we have a beautiful depiction of  Metai and Jamila, looking just as they’re described in the book. And, even though they’re close, you can see the tension between them. Kudos to the artist and designer.

So Done, Paula Chase, Greenwillow Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poet X

Words have power, even before they’re spoken.

33294200Xiomara Batista is many things – high school student, twin to Xavier, never quite good enough daughter, and closet poet. She’s being raised in a strict religious household by a mother who really wanted to be a nun and dad whose idea of being a good father is to close off his past life, stay silent and go along with mom. Xiomara is dealing with a lot – questioning her connection to the religion her mother forces on her, trying to be a good friend and ally to her brother who has secrets of his own, dealing with the unwanted attention men feel free to aim at her womanly body, and despite her mother’s harsh lectures about the dangers of dating, accepting that there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to boys. Her only outlet is her poetry; she writes it just for herself, trying to make sense of her thoughts and feelings. Eventually she’s persuaded to join the Spoken Word Poetry Club at school and, with the support of new friends, gains the confidence to share her words. After her first performance at an open mic everything changes. Xiomara’s journey is difficult but she learns how to live within her family while still being herself. Now, she understands that her words serve as both armor and weapon.

This book’s story in verse format serves the narrative very well, successfully making what looks spare on the page truly dense in meaning. The weaving of the overall story with Xiomara’s poetry is emotional, heartbreaking, joyous and powerful. Fully rooted in her Dominican culture, Elizabeth Acevedo paints a moving picture of this young woman, working to filter all the messages directed at her, on her way to discovering her true self.

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X, Harper Teen

 

 

Monday’s Not Coming

How can a girl disappear and no one notice?

35068534Claudia and her best friend Monday do everything together. They keep each other’s secrets, and even have their own language. When Claudia comes back from spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia she can’t wait to catch up with her friend. But Monday’s phone isn’t working, and when Claudia knocks on the door of Monday’s house, her mother screams that she’s not there and Claudia needs to leave. When the first day of school – then week, then month – go by and Monday still hasn’t shown up, Claudia is worried but she seems to be the only one. She can’t get a straight answer from anyone, just excuses and deflections. Even when she sees Monday’s older sister she can’t get any information. After being told so many stories – Monday is being homeschooled, is at her father’s, is with an aunt – Claudia slowly comes to understand what really happened; the painful, horrifying truth about her best friend and about herself.

When you read this book, prepare for a roller coaster ride. The structure works brilliantly to convey the story. The chapters cover Before, Before the Before, The After, Later On and several specific months. The writing is so skillful we live inside Claudia’s confusion and frustration but never lose the thread of the narrative. As we and Claudia come to learn the truth, everything falls into place with heartbreaking clarity. We are forced to confront how race and class affect attention to issues involving young girls of color, and how important it is for communities of color to destigmatize taking care of mental health.

Tiffany D. Jackson, Monday’s Not Coming, Katherine Tegen Books