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!)

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: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

Audiobook: Wandering in Strange Lands

by Morgan Jerkins
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Release date: August 4, 2020
Content: There is some swearing including a few f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It will be in the biography section of the bookstore.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer, but she’s also the daughter of a New Jersey woman and a North Carolina man. The central question she grapples with in this book is this: how has moving away from her families’ roots in the South (after slavery, but mostly during the Great Migration) affected their connection to the land, to their communities, and to each other? She explores this question by visiting South Carolina and talking with and trying to understand the histories of the Gullah people there. She heads to Louisiana to talk to Creole, and to Oklahoma to explore connections between African American freed slaves and the Cherokee nation. And she finally heads to Los Angeles. Through all this, she unearths her family history and stories, as much as she can, and that it was White Supremacy and Institutional Racism that was the driving force for much of what her ancestors experienced.

A friend once told me that you can talk statistics and data at people, but it’s the stories that really matter. And this book brings that home. Yes, I knew there was (and is) Institutional Racism and white people were (and are) discriminatory and prejudiced against black people to the point that they want to push them out. But, hearing Jerkins’ stories gets that point home in a way data just doesn’t do. It also reminded me of the importance of knowing where you’re from and knowing your family’s stories. (I have been very bad about passing this on to my children.)

It’s an interesting story, and Jerkins is an interesting narrator to guide the story along its path. I’m glad I read it.

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
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Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
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Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

Audio book: Me and White Supremacy

by Layla Saad
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mild swearing. It is in the Self-Help section (I think?) of the bookstore.

I am going to say this up front: I read this book wrong. It was meant to be an interactive 28-day journey with journaling and extensive deep reflection. However, that just doesn’t work (for me) in audio format. I listen in the car or doing a puzzle, and it’s just not conducive to a lot of serious reflection. So. I am going to purchase this book (when it’s reprinted; it’s on backorder now) and do the actual work.

Some thoughts though:

This book, by a Black woman, centers on how white people are privileged by the system we live in. Saad asks some tough questions, explains some tough concepts (like white privilege and white fragility), and encourages readers to do the work to become anti-racist and more inclusive. She also asks about concrete commitments we (white people!) can make in order to continue the lifelong pursuit of becoming anti-racist. It’s a challenging book to read, if only because she (very calmly and eloquently) challenges the very fabric of the society white people are used to.

And for that, it’s very much worth reading.