Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
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Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

Class Act

by Jerry Craft
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Others in the series: New Kid
Content: There is talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s the start of eighth grade at Riverdale Academy Day School, and so Jordan and Drew are no longer the new kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the school culture, especially for Drew, who is a darker-skinned Black kid than Jordan. In fact one of the things I found most interesting about this book was the way Craft leaned into racisim and colorism. Jordan is a lighter-skinned Black kid, and everyone (well, white teachers) often overlooks Jordan when talking to or about the Black kids at school.

In fact, as the book follows Drew (though we still get a good dose of Liam and Jordan as well as some of the other friends they made in New Kid), Craft highlights all the little ways that Drew is battling racism in his every day life. Especially from well-meaning white people (which caused me to reflect on the myriad of ways I may have been unintentionally racist towards Black friends).

It’s a fun book, though. I enjoyed learning more about Drew and his life, and how he struggles to figure out who he really is and what he really wants. My favorite section though was when Liam and Drew visited Jordan’s family for an afternoon. I loved seeing the interactions between the adults and the kids and just experiencing Joy.

An excellent book. (And hopefully there will be more!)

When Stars Are Scattered

by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
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Content: There is war and death as well as some situations that might be rough for the tender-hearted. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So, this is a real story Omar Mohamed is a real person, and Jamieson worked with him to bring his story — which, when she met him, he was writing down for adults — to children. It’s set in the 1990s, when Somalia was in a war, and Omar and his younger brother Hassan are refugees in a camp in Kenya. Omar’s father was killed and he and his brother were separated from their mother, which left them all alone. Thankfully, their neighbor Fatuma stepped in and became their guardian. This graphic novel is a depiction of their time in camp, the ups and downs, and how Omar and Hassan — who is disabled and has seizures — manage from day to day. It’s set in three parts, one when Omar was probably about 11, another when he was 13/14 and the last when he was 18 and finally was able to be relocated to the United States.

It’s a powerful story, partially because there aren’t many stories about what life is like in refugee camps (spoiler: it’s a lot of hunger and boredom), but also partially because of the way Jamieson and Mohamed choose to tell it. There’s a bit about Islam, about cultural norms — there are two girls, Nimo and Miryam, who are going to school with Omar. One is married off, the other gets to continue her studies — but mostly it’s about Omar and his trauma and relationships to those around him.

It’s a remarkable story, one with an ending that made me cry. I’m so glad Jamieson and Mohamed chose to share it with us.

Twins

by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright
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Content: There’s some talk of crushes on boys. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Maureen and Francine are identical twins and have done everything together. Same friends, same classes… they’re identical, so they must be the same. Right?

Wrong. It’s the start of sixth grade and all of a sudden, Francine wants to be called “Fran” and they are no longer in all their classes together. And Maureen is left wondering why now? Why the sudden change?

And when both Francine and Maureen — independently, for different reasons — decide to run for class president, sparks start to fly, not just at school but at home, too.

I usually adore Varian’s books, and this is no exception. It’s a great story — he and Wright capture not only what it means to be siblings, and the unspoken competitions (even where there shouldn’t be any — at least from a parent’s perspective), but also what it means to be a twin searching for her own identity. The stakes aren’t terribly high — who will win class president? Can Maureen pass Cadet Corps? Will Francine ever talk to her again? — but they are absolutely reflective of what an 11-year-old might feel. And I liked that they addressed racism — there’s a scene where Maureen and a couple friends are at the mall and they get dissed by a White mall worker not only because they’re young, but because they’re Black. It’s not a big scene, but it helped paint the picture of Maureen’s personality and give the book some weight. (I also really really appreciated the twins’ parents. They were awesome. It’s always nice to have good parents show up in a kids’ book.)

I loved Wright’s illustrations as well. She gave the twins each their own personality, and distinguished them not only in physical ways (Fran wears earrings), but also in subtle ways — the way they position their bodies, for example. Wright just *got* what Varian was trying to get across with the words, and brought it all to life.

I can’t wait to read more about Francine and Maureen. I hope there is more!

Audio book: Clap When You Land

by Elizabeth Acevedo
Read by  Elizabeth Acevedo and Melania-Luisa Marte
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a scene of sexual assault and one of almost-rape. There is also swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic, where her father — who lives in the US — vists every summer. Yahaira Rios lives in the US with her parents, except every summer her father goes to the Dominican Republic for “work”. And then, one fatal day, the plane that their father is on crashes into the ocean, killing everyone on board.

What follows is a story of loss, of grief, of forgiveness, of finding. Told in verse — and beautifully narrated by Acevedo and Marte — it follows the two months after the plane crash, as Camino and Yahaira find out about each other, and come to terms with their beloved papi’s other family, and find their way through their grief in the aftermath of a tragic accident.

Acevedo brilliantly captures not only the grief, but the differences between growing up in the US and growing up in the DR, and the challenges that each one brings. I loved the way both Camino and Yahaira had things they loved about their father, but they also had to come to terms with his deception and imperfections.

Truly an amazing book.

Hood Feminism

by Mikki Kendall
First sentence: “My grandmother would not have described herself as a feminist.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I’ve had this one on my pile for several months; probably since soon after George Floyd was murdered and I became more invested in reading books by Black (and other POC) authors. I also consider myself a feminist, so I figured this was a good merging of the two interests.

What it is is a series of essays by Kendall, where she reminds feminists — specifically (mainstream) White Feminists — that while the issues they’re fighting for — equal pay, reproductive rights, misogyny etc — are all fine and good, if they don’t think about the issues that are affecting women of color, then they’re not *truly* being feminists. Issues like housing and food availability, gun violence and single parenting. Things like making sure Black (and other POC) women are included in the conversation, and reminding White women that just because they’re oppressed by men doesn’t mean they can’t turn around and be oppressors as well.

No, it’s not an easy read. Kendall admits up front that she’s not out to be nice or polite. She’s is out to speak her truth (she grew up in the inner city, her first marriage was abusive and she admits that she had privileges that allowed her to get out of both situations and achieve a middle class-adjacent life, in her words) but also the truth for women, specifically Black women, who are not given the opportunity to speak.

But it’s an important read. It’s important to remember that the charity work we do is good but not enough if the government is taking away housing opportunities and punishing poor people for being poor. It’s a reminder that, as a White woman, I need to listen the voices of my BIPOC sisters and not just barge in there thinking I have the answers.

It’s definitely a book I will go back to and would love to discuss with others.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

Audio book: The Color of Compromise

by Jemar Tisby
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is descriptions of violence done to Black people and use of the n-word. It would be in either the Sociology section or Religion section if the bookstore carried it.

This book is the history of chattel slavery in the United States, but as seen through the lens of Christianity. So, on the one hand: there wasn’t much new for me to learn about slavery that I hadn’t already learned from Stamped from the Beginning. But the part about Christianity was fascinating. See, white Christians have always bee complicit in slavery, in Jim Crow laws, in racism. There’s no way around it. If we consider the United States a Christian nation, if there were God-fearing people who owned slaves; who owned people; who discriminated against Blacks; who, say, in the example of my own church, refused to give them equal standing as white men and women; then, Christians have always been complicit in the oppression of Black people.

And that’s a hard realization. It’s so easy to think of the oppressors as “other”, but as Tisby points out, even if Christians were not actively acting as slave-owners or KKK members (and some were) the Silence of the church as a whole (and many, many members) gave tacit approval to the systemic oppression. By not speaking out against it, by not working to fight against it, they were, by default, for it.

Although Tisby gives suggestions on how to fix the problem of Christianity’s complicit behavior in anti-Black racism, I’m not sure what I can do systemically. I do know I am working on the racism – both implicit and explicit — in my life, working to enlarge my circle and my point of view. And to remember that we are all God’s children, even if the system doesn’t behave like we are.