Turning Point

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Rasheeda and Monique live in the Pirates Cove Housing Projects and are best friends. They just finished 8th grade and for the first time won’t be spending the summer together.

Monique has earned a spot in a competitive, intensive ballet training program along with Jamila, another Cove resident. Monique loves ballet but is nervous about the program. Will she measure up? Will there be other Black girls there? How will she handle being away from home?

Rasheeda is staying in Pirates Cove this summer. She lives with her Aunt Deandra who took her in when she saw the squalid conditions under which Rasheeda and her mother were living. Rasheeda’s aunt keeps her on a tight leash.  She is on a mission to make sure her niece Rasheeda doesn’t go astray and stays safe.  Their entire lives are centered around church.

Though in very different worlds Rasheeda and Monique are faced with challenges of being in very structured environments. For Monique, the expectations in this traditional, predominantly white ballet program are quite different from her local ballet school. She is a talented dancer but does not have the traditional ballet body that seems to be the norm. She feels off balance in this setting, where everyone seems to know the system except her.

The structure in Rasheeda’s life comes from her Aunt. Even normal things like having a crush or wanting to join activities not connected to church are judged harshly. Rasheeda is never given the opportunity to learn how to make her own decisions. With no experience in handling herself on her own, Rasheeda finds herself in troubling situations and has no idea what to do.

Monique and Rasheeda’s situations are realistic, as are their responses. While structure can be good, it can also be suffocating. I think young readers will relate to Monique’s and Rasheeda’s feelings of confusion and isolation as they try to understand how to fit in to the world around them.  The girls believe they have to figure out everything on their own. Young people often experience the same feelings as Monique and Rasheeda, even if the settings are different. I hope readers will be inspired by seeing both Monique and Rasheeda demonstrate agency.  They find a way to manage, but not completely succumb to, the constraints they are under.

There are two other books, So Done and Dough Boys, set in Pirates Cove. Some characters will be familiar but Turning Point works fine as a stand alone.

Turning Point will be available on September 15th but you can preorder it now.

Felix Ever After

FelixFelix is a queer Black trans teen who is still struggling with identity. Though certain he is not female, he doesn’t always feel 100% male. He’s a talented artist whose dream is to attend Brown University. Felix enrolls in a summer art program to help improve his chances. He has close friends in the program but has difficult relationships with other students. Felix arrives at his art school one day to find someone has posted a photo gallery of his pre-transition self, complete with his deadname (his pre-transition name). Felix is devastated and decides to catfish the person he thinks is responsible. In going after the person he targeted, Felix is forced to face some truths about that person and about his own relationships. This powerful story does not shy away from the harassment and misconceptions trans teens face. The narrative deftly explores the idea of continuing to question identity, even beyond the binary, given the complex experience of gender. The characters vary in culture, gender identity, and gender expression, and have depth. The resolution of the mystery and Felix’s arc are both handled in a satisfying way.

This is an #ownvoices story, meaning the author, Kacen Callender, is writing from their lived experience. Callender experienced much of what Felix is subjected to in the book. It was interesting to learn about the many identities between male and female as Felix searches for the one that feels right. The author intentionally makes the point that it’s OK to keep questioning identity – or to reject labels altogether.

Many independent bookstores are set up for online shopping, and this is an important time to support them. Find Felix Ever After at your local bookstore.

This Is My Brain In Love

45170387Jocelyn “Jos” Wu is a child of Chinese immigrants. Her family’s restaurant, which is located in a central New York strip mall, is struggling. Jocelyn talks her father into giving her one chance to help the business before he decides to close it and move back to New York City. Jocelyn’s ad for a management intern is answered by Will Domenici, who hopes to draw on his experience as a business manager for his school newspaper.  He and Jos hit it off and begin to see success with their marketing plans. Despite that, Jos can only focus on things that didn’t go right. Will has been struggling with anxiety since he was in middle school. Years of therapy have helped him manage it, but there are still challenges. Will recognizes signs of depression in Jos. He wants to help, but understands the limits, including those growing from his own anxiety. Will and Jos have much in common, including having immigrant parents (Will’s mother is Nigerian), and there’s a spark.  They grow to care about each other, but have to keep their brains from standing in the way.

Jocelyn, Will and the other teen characters are realistic and complex. There are no easy answers or heroic rescues. Jos and Will’s parents are allowed complexity too; each brings a perspective to the question of overcoming the shame associated with recognizing, accepting and managing mental health issues. For example Jos’s father believes these conditions don’t affect Chinese people and were created by pharmaceutical companies. Will’s mother, despite being a doctor, felt addressing Will’s anxiety would just be pathologizing issues that could be resolved with guidance. We learn Jos’s mother and Will’s father see things differently.

The writer, an Asian American doctor also raised by immigrants, includes a powerful author’s note. She is very straightforward in describing her struggles in coming to terms with her own depression.  She also addresses the stigma that exists in the medical community as well as in immigrant communities and communities of color. Managing mental health is important for all of us. We may see more people needing help given the current state of the world. I hope this book will help people overcome shame not only to take care of themselves, but to avoid being an obstacle to others who need care.

Right now, going to a bookstore is not an option but many are still filling online orders. I’d like to recommend Books Inc., an independent bookstore that will ship This Is My Brain In Love (and any other books you order), free of charge.

 

The Banks

thebanksRoxane Gay, essayist and author of Hunger, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women, has also written comics. She started with World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spinoff, and recently returned to comic writing with The Banks. This is the story of three generations of African American women holding down the family business.  Matriarch Clara Banks and her daughter Cora are the best thieves in Chicago. Granddaughter Celia angrily rejects the family’s criminal enterprise and goes into investment banking. Celia is a spoiled diva but she’s smart. An infuriating incident at her firm makes her realize her mother and grandmother’s skills are exactly what she needs to set things right. Although Gay’s narrative has all of the best elements of a heist story – a complex plan, threats arising from an old grudge, detectives closing in on them, surprising twists and lots of tension – the family dynamics are what set it apart. The intergenerational bickering among the three hard-headed women adds humor and gives a fresh spin to a familiar plot. Artist Ming Doyle’s bold, realistic style is just right for this story. She uses an expansive palette to bring the characters to life and illuminate the many changes in time, place and mood. With equal parts competitiveness, cooperation and grudging respect, the three women come together and do what they do best.

Find The Banks at your local comic book store.

 

 

Slay

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Kiera is a teen coder and videogame player who tires of the racism and toxicity in the online gaming world. This inspires her to create her own virtual reality MMORPG* called Slay.  Slay exists as a place for Black gamers to celebrate Black excellence. Joining the game requires a passcode, which can only be obtained from a current member – and only after asking the right question. She keeps Slay secret from her parents, her sister and especially her boyfriend. His view of Blackness is very rigid and holds no room for videogames or the people who play them.

Things fall apart when a Slay gamer is killed by another participant. Suddenly this undercover game is public knowledge. Certain people claim that it’s racist because Slay’s a space only for Black players, but these critics never acknowledge the persistent racism gamers of color have to contend with in mainstream online games. The pressure on Kiera builds with the talk of lawsuits. The suits claim that excluding White people violates their civil rights.  Media depictions emerge suggesting that the game targets at-risk and poor Black youth. Things continue to escalate, forcing Kiera to make a bold decision in an attempt to save the game and have it be recognized for what it really is.

This book is no fantasy. The harassment described in the book are things gamers of color (as well as female and queer gamers) regularly experience. The narrative accurately depicts how media “experts,” who know nothing about the game or gaming, pontificate and spread inaccurate information with great confidence. This book does a powerful job of using the lens of the game to explore Black identity, respectability politics,** toxic male behavior and how anonymity can be both a weapon and a shield.

It is not necessary to be a gamer to love this book. The plotlines around Kiera’s relationships with family and friends, and the lives of the Slay players we meet are realistic and relatable. Author Brittney Morris crafts the game itself beautifully. The language describing Slay’s design and in-game action is exciting and cinematic; you can see everything play out. The game’s elements – battles, hexes and defenses – are based on Black culture. A player can attack with Twist Out, which makes the character’s natural hair grow out and immobilize the opponent. They can defend with Jimi Hendrix, which obscures their opponent’s vision in a purple haze. I’m tempted to list them all, but you should read the book yourself and learn about the power of Shea Butter, Reclaimed Time, Resilience, Innovation – and Mom’s Mac and Cheese.

You can learn more about gaming-while-Black and see some sample Slay cards in this essay by the author.

Slay makes a great gift for readers on your list – or yourself! Find it at your local bookstore.

*Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

** Respectability politics is the problematic belief that marginalized people should conform to a certain standard of behavior and presentation so they can earn the approval of the group in power. Read a great discussion of this on “The Root”.

 

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.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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17-year-old Rukhsana Ali is a queer Muslim girl of Bengali descent living in Seattle. She’s out to her friends, deeply closeted to her parents. Her conservative parents are strict followers of Bengali social traditions. They expect Rukhsana to spend more time honing her housekeeping skills (in preparation for marriage), than on her education. Rukhsana wants to study physics and astronomy; she secretly applied and was accepted to Caltech. At first her parents were upset, but they eventually decided this would make Rukhsana more attractive in the matchmaking market. When her parents discover Rukhsana with her girlfriend Ariana, they cannot and will not accept it. They take Rukhsana to Bangladesh, explaining that her beloved grandmother is very sick. Actually, they plan to keep Rukhsana there until they can marry her off to a good Bengali boy. Devastated and angry, Rukhsana plots her escape.

The beauty of this book is its refusal to be a simple good vs. bad story. It shows love for Bengali culture without excusing how it literally endangers some of its people’s lives.  The narrative is exceptionally well crafted, illustrating the conflict Rukhsana feels.  The heritage Rukhsana loves and embraces makes no room for her as a queer woman. Her parents are written with dimension; rather than simply making them villains, there is context for their sometimes cruel decisions. The story is made richer by the other people in Rukhsana’s life. Her relatives, her white girlfriend and other young Bengalis in Rukhsana’s same situation all bring different perspectives, making the story even more complex. Move this heartbreaking, hopeful book to the top of your To Be Read pile.

Find The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali at your  local independent 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.

 

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.

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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