With The Fire on High

Sometimes the heat is what draws you to the kitchen.

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17-year-old Afro-Latinx Emoni Santiago dreams of being a chef. Her creativity in the kitchen is stellar, and her instincts always lead her to new culinary places. But her dream may remain just that. Emoni got pregnant as a high school freshman and is  now raising her 3 year old daughter Emma. They live with Emoni’s grandmother. Emoni’s  mother died when she was a baby and her father felt it was more important for him to go back to Puerto Rico than stay home and care for Emoni. Emoni has a tenuous relationship with the baby’s father who is present for Emma, less so for her. Unsurprisingly her family has serious financial struggles. A new culinary arts class, which includes a trip to Spain to study under local chefs, is offered at her high school. She knows it won’t be easy but she wants this. With an aging grandmother, toddler child, and minimal financial resources, Emoni has to figure out how to make it work.

This book’s author, Elizabeth Acevedo, has won multiple awards for her first book, The Poet X, written in verse. She easily switches to prose here, creating equally compelling storytelling. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat Emoni’s struggles but presents her with full agency. Emoni’s commitment to her education, her daughter and cooking is clear. She creates opportunities and dares to imagine a future for herself. The other people in Emoni’s life are more than backdrops. By providing context for their actions, Acevedo avoids simplistic good/bad characterizations..  This honesty results in a powerful, realistically hopeful story. Warning: read this book near your kitchen – reading about Emoni’s culinary creations will either inspire you to try some of your own or just make you hungry!

With the Fire on High is available now at your local bookstore.

 

A Good Kind of Trouble

When is it time to stop avoiding trouble and instead walk right in?

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Shayla and her best friends Isabella and Julia are 7th graders at Emerson Junior High. African American Shayla, Latinx Isabella and Japanese American Julia call themselves the United Nations. Though they are each from a different background they are united in friendship. Shayla struggles as she notices things changing around her. Julia is now spending time with a group of Asian girls; Shayla is confused by her sudden jealousy of Isabella’s talent and attractiveness; as one of a few Black students in her school, she wonders if she should have more Black friends but feels awkward trying to make connections.

Shayla’s concerns go beyond the usual junior high drama, as her community is watching the trial of a police officer who shot an unarmed African American man. In Shayla’s mind the verdict should be obvious – there was a video! With guidance from her parents and older sister, Shayla starts to understand the complexity of her world. Once the verdict of the trial is announced Shayla knows she wants to do something, but is she ready for the consequences?

This book does an incredible job of exploring activism, Black Lives Matter and issues of police violence in a way that will resonate with younger readers. The cast of junior high school characters is constructed realistically in action and voice. Crushes, shifting friendships, and questions of identity are all dealt with just as young people face them. The author fits the bigger social issues squarely in this context, making the discussion both accessible and relatable for these readers.

Pick up a copy of this powerful book at your local bookstore.

 

 

 

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.

New Kid

New kid, new lifestyle?

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In this graphic novel we meet Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old living in New York City, who has just started attending Riverdale Academy Day School. In addition to having to make new friends and navigate the culture of this very fancy private school, he must deal with the challenges of being one of a very few kids of color there. His parents reflect the mixed feelings Jordan brings to the experience. While his mother is excited that he has the opportunity to go to a school that’s well-resourced and will allow him to make connections, his father is concerned about the lack of diversity.

A bigger issue for Jordan is that he’d rather go to art school. Jordan is a cartoonist; his creations, which are interspersed throughout the book, show how he uses his art and sly sense of humor to work out his frustrations. Many of them center around how Jordan and 2 other African-American boys at the school are treated. Jordan lives in a 2-parent middle-class household, Drew lives with his grandmother, and Maury, who has been at Riverdale since kindergarten, is the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. Despite coming from different backgrounds each of them is subject to the same assumptions. This is really brought home at the school’s book fair. The only books featuring African-Americans involve slavery, gang life and poverty. Making matters worse, the event organizers hand each boy  “The Mean Streets of South Uptown.”  The adults assume this street lit reflects the lives of the African-American boys and they expect the boys to love it.

This moment really struck me because, sadly, I personally have seen librarians do this. It is infuriating that anyone would look at Black youth and imagine that they would only be able to relate to books where someone gets shot, is forced to deal drugs or has incarcerated or drug-addicted parents. The belief that this represents all the boys’ experiences is insulting; even worse is the assumption that students who could relate to this book would have no interest in reading anything else. There are other instances of macroaggressions, some of which are experienced by staff of color, others by students who feel like they’re outsiders for other reasons.

However, these issues are all raised organically with irony, sarcasm and humor, so the story is refreshing, not didactic. The art brings Jordan’s journey to life beautifully. The fresh, colorful palette is engaging and clearly expresses everything the characters are experiencing. Switching to black and white for Jordan’s cartoons helps focus attention on his real feelings.

New Kid is a wonderful graphic novel which will resonate with a variety of readers – no matter how far removed you are from middle school.  Find it at your local 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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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