Swim Team

Black tween girl wearing blue and yellow swimsuit and goggles backed by blue water in a swimming pool.Bree Hanley is a seventh grader who faces a host of obstacles when she and her father move to Florida from New York. Her dad works two jobs so he isn’t around much to offer support as she struggles to make friends at her new middle school. Bree’s new home, Palmetto Shores, is obsessed with competitive swimming. Bree’s first choice elective, Math Puzzles, is full and the only activity with space is Swim 101. Bree struggles with anxiety, so having to participate in the spotlight sport – while navigating the challenges of being the new girl at school – proves to be overwhelming. Despite these hurdles she makes a bold move and agrees to join her friends on the swim team. Can new friends and a surprising connection to her town’s last championship swim team help her get through?

Vibrant colors bring the lively characters and settings to life. Issues of racism and classism are communicated well in both art and text, which is well-suited for the intended middle grade audience. Bree’s struggles with anxiety are powerfully illustrated with dark clouds spelling out her fears. They contrast with the colors of the world outside of her head, showing how oppressive those thoughts can be. Most of the characters are Black, which opens up the conversation about how a history of segregation prevented Black people from accessing public pools and beaches. The inclusion of resources to learn more about these issues is a bonus.

This comic is relatable to a wide audience, regardless of any connection to middle school or swimming. Many of us in new, uncomfortable situations have experienced anxiety. The narrative shows that finding support in friends and community can be the first steps on a path to healing.

Find Swim Team at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Love Radio

Love RadioCan a teen-aged relationship expert get his laser-focused-on-anything-but-romance crush to fall for him after three dates?

Prince Jones, aka DJ LoveJones, hosts a radio show where he plays music and gives relationship advice. He aspires to be a  professional DJ and branch out into other areas of the music industry. Prince is very talented but his obligation to care for his disabled mother and his seven year old brother make him doubt that he’ll ever reach his goal. Danielle Ford puts all her efforts into preparing for college. She wants to be a writer and is and doing everything she can to get to her dream school, New York University. She loves her hometown of Detroit but NYU is where she wants to be. Danielle is struggling to finish her application essay. She’s hiding something that gets in the way of both her writing and her friendships.  Prince has had a crush on Danielle since they were in sixth grade, but she barely knows who he is. They cross paths in a most awkward way, much to Danielle’s embarrassment. She has no interest in romance but does want to make things right, so she agrees to go out with Prince. As their relationship evolves they find themselves making unexpected choices.

Love Radio is a fun romance with plenty to swoon over, but the story is much deeper. Through the lens of Danielle and Prince’s struggles the narrative explores issues of healthy relationships, friendships, trauma and family responsibility.  Danielle and Prince’s characters have depth – we learn a lot about what writing means to her and what music means to him. Detroit specific references draw readers into the setting. Prince and Danielle’s friends add richness and additional perspectives to the story. Prince’s friends include a teen dad and guy who’s a not-so faithful boyfriend. Danielle’s friends are ambitious and really care for her, though Danielle can’t seem to shake the one who cares only about herself. Author Ebony LaDelle’s gift for writing teen language makes messages about the importance of men holding each other accountable, mutual respect, and trust sound less like lessons and more like advice from a good friend.

Love Radio comes out in May but you can pre-order it now. I try to stick with reviewing books you can get right away, but this was so moving I couldn’t wait. Find Love Radio at your local bookstore.

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari

Amari and the Night Brothers chronicles a quest that literally relies on #blackgirlmagic.

Amari is one of the only Black girls at her private middle school. She’s bullied and gets in trouble for standing up for herself. Amari’s worried about her older brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. After being visited by Quinton in a dream, she is whisked off to join the same program. Amari learns it’s actually the academy where young people train to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Each trainee has a natural talent which gets enhanced into a special power; for example, a creative person becomes a mastermind inventor. The Bureau’s specialized departments work together to manage relationships between the known world and the unseen supernatural beings all around us. Amari is determined to become an Agent in the Department of Supernatural Investigations so she can find her brother.

Amari is unsure of her talent and is shocked to learn her power is wielding magic. Magic is illegal and magicians themselves are considered evil  due largely to the Night Brothers. These wicked magicians wreaked havoc on their world in their quest for power. They were also involved in Quinton’s disappearance. Despite having this forbidden skill, Amari is allowed to stay, but finds herself subject to the same shunning and othering she experienced in school. However, thanks to her roommate, an aura-reading weredragon, and some adults who believe in her, she grows in confidence – and supernatural ability – overcoming some big challenges in her quest.

This story deals with real problems but wraps them in whimsy. There’s a lot of silliness which succeeds in making the book fun without side stepping the harder issues. The worldbuilding is solid and plot twists abound. Illustrated chapter headings enliven the story. Amari faces difficulties but also finds friendship and support in this delightful, mystical world. The ending is satisfying but leaves the door open for more adventure. Readers of this middle grade fantasy will be eagerly awaiting the next volume – I know I am!

Find Amari and the Night Brothers (in person or online), at your local bookstore.

 

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Dragon Hoops

dragon hoopsDragon Hoops follows two fascinating narratives.  It’s the tale of a storied high school’s quest for a state championship and the author’s own journey as a graphic novelist.

Bishop O’Dowd High School, located in Oakland, CA, is renowned for its strong athletic program. Gene Luen Yang taught computer science at O’Dowd, while balancing a demanding career as a graphic novel creator. Yang had just wrapped up one project and was in the market for his next book idea.  He was a self-admitted lifelong hater of sports, but he couldn’t ignore his students’ excitement about the Dragons upcoming basketball season. His curiosity led him to sit down with basketball coach Lou Richie.  Before long, Yang had his next project.

The narrative includes details on the history of the men’s and women’s games, including how they were impacted by racism and sexism. For example, there was so much concern about the effects of basketball on their “womanhood,” women were not allowed to run the full length of the court until 1971. Profiles of the diverse team members and Coach Richie, himself an alum of O’Dowd and its basketball team, enrich the story. Some difficult history in the program is handled thoughtfully.

Yang elevates an already powerful story by weaving his own journey with sports and his career as a graphic novelist into the narrative.  The concept of taking steps – taking risks – is a recurring theme.

Yang’s art brings the story to life with depictions of the basketball games which are so compelling you feel as if you’re there, watching. He uses a full range of colors, which are muted in historical sections and more vibrant in the time of the story. You don’t have to love basketball to love this book. Find Dragon Hoops at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Dough Boys

Two people starting on the same path can end up in very different places.

43131603This follow up to So Done revisits the world of Pirates Cove public housing. 8th graders Roland “Rollie” Matthews and Deontae “Simp” Wright are best friends. Rollie is a talented drummer enrolled in a special program for young performing artists. He has a stable life, while Simp’s life is much more complicated. As the oldest of 5 boys living with their single mother, Simp is saddled with adult responsibilities.

Both boys play for the champion Marauders basketball team – which involves more than just basketball. When Coach Tez recruits players he’s also recruiting “dough boys” – lookouts for his drug dealing operation. Rollie got caught up in Tez’s gang only because he wanted to play basketball. For Simp it’s a clear path to respect and success. Rollie keeps it secret from his family but Simp doesn’t. His mother happily looks the other way, glad he can provide for the family. Rollie and Simp both come to a crossroads. They find themselves having to make very different but equally difficult decisions. Will they be able to handle the consequences?

This story explores how people can live in the same world but have very different experiences. Though Rollie and Simp both envision futures for themselves, even as middle schoolers they see the challenges. One sees a way out, the other finds a path that keeps him in. The chapters alternate between Rollie and Simp’s voices, giving a clear picture of their situations and struggles. The decisions they have to make are framed within the normal life of their 8th grade existence, including maintaining  loyalty to friends, having crushes, and managing the influence of peers.

One important thing about this story is that it doesn’t embrace the Black pain narrative that so many books include these days. Instead, it thoughtfully explores the realities of these young men’s lives without centering violence and suffering. This a relatable and engaging story for a wide variety of young readers.

Find Dough Boys at your local bookstore.

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.