New Kid

by Jerry Craft
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some bullying, and it’s a bit on the longer side. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the letter that accompanied the ARC, Craft wrote that he wanted to draw a graphic novel that featured kids who looked like him because he didn’t find any when he (or his sons) were growing up. He wanted to feature a kid of color, having some of the experiences — that were not just “gritty” — that kids of color have. And I think, with this graphic novel, he succeeded.

It’s the story of a kid — Jordan Banks — who wants to draw and go to an art school but whose parents have decided that a fancy (white and rich) prep school will give him better opportunities in life. Problem is Jordan doesn’t want to go to a fancy prep school, especially one where he’s in the minority.

The book follows the school year — my favorite thing was the chapter titles that referenced movies (Upper, Upper West Side Story; Straight Out of South Uptown were a couple that made me smile) — as Jordan learns the ins and outs of making friends, standing up for himself and others, and the ways in which well-meaning white people just Don’t Get It.

It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s honest, and it’s eye-opening, and Craft is definitely a graphic novelist to keep an eye on.

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On the Come Up

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I might have to kill somebody tonight.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+), but if you read The Hate U Give, then this will be good for you.

Bri has one goal in life: to be a rapper. She’s a talented poet, she’s good at thinking on her feet, and she has a killer beat. However, that’s not what her mother — especially after Bri’s father, a semi-famous rapper, was killed in a gang war — wants for her. She wants Bri to be like her older brother, focusing on school, getting into a good college, and Be Something. But, things are rough for their family: sometimes they go without heat or electricity because it’s tough making ends meet, and when Bri’s mom loses her job, Bri’s determined to make a go of being a rapper.

But things backfire: at the expensive (white) prep school that Bri attends, she’s apprehended by the security guards for carrying contraband (in this case, candy she sold to make a few dollars) and it spirals into a referendum on racism and profiling that Bri doesn’t want to be stuck in the middle of.

Bri’s story is one of heart and hopefulness — is she really “on the come up”? Can she make it with just talent, and not by succumbing to the racist whims of studio executives? — with an underlying look at the everyday racism and trials that Black people go through. It’s not as heart wrenching as THUG was, but it is eye-opening, especially for a middle-aged white woman who is trying to see the world through a different pair of eyes. Thomas is a talented writer, telling stories that not only are representative for the world around her and accessible to her target audience, but are also Important for everyone to read.

Excellent.

Friday Black

by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
First sentence: “Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s violent and there is some strong language, including a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up after hearing the author on the New York Times Book Review Podcast. I’m not usually a short story sort of person — and this one took me a while to get through — but it sounded fascinating enough that I felt compelled to pick it up. 

It’s a set of mostly unconnected short stories (though there are three about working in retail that take place in the same store) about what it’s like to be black in America. It’s nominally speculative fiction: the shoppers in the title story are forms of zombies, made that way by consumer greed, literally killing each other on the way to get the Product They Need. Or, in the final story, “Through the Flash”, Adjei-Brenyah imagines a future where technology and climate change has stuck us all in this terrible time loop, doomed forever to repeat the same day and the effects that would have on people, for good and ill. 

But my favorite story — “favorite” meaning “the one that suck with me the most” is “Zimmer Land”, an “amusement” park where white people get to pay for the opportunity to extract “justice”: stop a terrorist, solve a bomb threat, or stop a “thug” from invading their streets. If, by the end, you haven’t realized that it’s a pretty damning telling of the way white people deal with crises, whether real or perceived, then I think you read it wrong. 

I didn’t get all the stories — part of my problem with short stories, usually — but that could be because I’m a white person, and I just don’t understand black life or experience. Even so, I found this to be incredibly powerful. He’s definitely a voice in fiction I’ll be watching out for more from. 

Dear Martin

dearmartin.jpgby Nic Stone
First sentence: “From where he’s standing across the street, Justyce can see her: Melo Taylor, ex-girlfriend, slumped over beside her Benz on the damp concrete of the FarmFresh parking lot.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some teenage drinking, talk of sex, swearing, and violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Justytce is a scholarship student at one of the most prestigious prep schools in Atlanta. He’s smart, he’s observant, he definitely deserves to be there.

Except. He’s one of only three black students in the school. And when he was arrested for trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend (so she wouldn’t drive drunk!) right before his senior year, he starts to notice things he’s let slide before. Like how his best friend’s (who’s also black) friends are, well, racist. Like how cops seem to get a pass when dealing with black people (especially men). And he tries, through writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr, to understand they way black people are treated, and tries to understand how to do the, well, “right” thing.

It’s not easy. Justyce says at one point in the book that it’s tough being in his position: he’s got white people at his school questioning whether he deserves to be there (or to get into Yale) and then black people in his mother’s neighborhood trying to pull him back and making fun of him and his aspirations. It’s unfair, to say the least.

And then, in one fateful afternoon, his whole life changes: his best friend is shot and killed in a traffic altercation with an off-duty cop. And Justyce — who was also in the car – – is caught in the cross hairs, and blamed for everything.

It’s a short novel — just over 200 pages — but it packs a punch. The takeaway? White people are awful. We have to work really hard at not being awful, because we take so much for granted. It was definitely eye-opening.

Pair it with The Hate U Give and Ghost Boys, and if you’re white, remind yourself of the privilege you have every day of your life.

Harbor Me

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “We think they took my papi.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: This deals with some heavy topics: immigration, guns, police brutality, etc. but it does so in a way that’s accessible and approachable for younger kids. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

In this classroom in New York City (I’m assuming… it’s a very diverse classroom), six kids are allowed one hour each week to talk, unsupervised by adults. The idea, hatched by their teacher, is that they would be able to talk about things on their minds, big and small, unencumbered by  adult approval/disapproval and interference.

The six kids are Esteban, whose father has been recently taken by ICE and is being held in Miami, possibly to be deported back to the Dominican Republic; Amari, a black boy whose father has recently had the talk with him about how to act in public, which bothers him deeply; Ashton, a white kid who recently moved from Connecticut, and who is often bullied at school; Holly, an upper-middle-class black girl; Tiago, a Puerto Rican whose mother doesn’t speak much English; and our main narrator, Haley, a biracial whose mother died in a car crash and whose father is in jail, and who is being raised by her uncle.

While Haley’s our main narrator, and her story is the one that we learn the most about, this really isn’t a plot-driven book. It reads much like the idea behind it: as a safe space for 4-6th graders (mostly, though maybe kids younger or older would be interested) to explore tough topics and feelings about things in the news today that may be bothering them. It’s less about the characters than it is about the ideas and themes. Which isn’t a bad thing; kids hear news and are probably more aware than adults give them credit for, and to have a book that addresses their fears  — even if they don’t solve them — and is a space for them to discuss their fears, is a good thing.

And Woodson’s writing is as lyrical as always. It’s a really tight book; there isn’t an extra word in it.

Worth reading.

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II

by Martin W. Sandler
First sentence: “It was a heroic achievement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some difficult moments, especially for younger readers. It would be in the middle grade history section of the bookstore.

I’ve known vaguely about the Japanese internment that happened during World War II for a while now (though it wasn’t something that was taught in school), but I had never read anything that detailed the actual experience of Japanese Americans in America.

My thoughts? White people are awful. (This is not a new realization. Just an additional confirmation.) My reservations about this book? It’s written by a (very nice) white guy. The book — which goes through the experiences of Japanese in America from the turn of the 20th century through World War II and afterward — seems really well-balanced and fair, and Sandler has done his research. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a story that would be better told by someone who had gone through the experience, by someone who could first-hand explain the experiences of racism they had while they were trying to make a living here. Sandler doesn’t really hold those in charge accountable (really: what were the politicians thinking?!) and while he is sympathetic to the plight of the Japanese and forthright about the conditions they lived in, it lacks the emotional punch a Japanese writer could most likely give it.

Still, not a horrible book.

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Don’t nobody believe nothing these days which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: While there isn’t any swearing or on-screen violence, the themes are quite intense. I go back and forth as to where this should go. One of my co-workers insists that 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be reading it, so doesn’t like it when I stick it with the Newbery Books (even though it got an honor). I’m not sure it needs to be in the Teen (grades 9+) section, though, so I may compromise by putting it in the YA (grades 6-8).

Will’s older brother, Shawn, has been shot dead. And so, Will believes, it’s his duty to hunt down the person who shot Shawn (and he’s sure he knows who it is) and kill them. After all, that’s part of the rules: Don’t cry, don’t snitch, and always get revenge. But, on the elevator with a gun tucked in his pants, Will encounters ghosts of his past, every single one of whom has been killed by gunshot.

The ending is left open: will Will follow through, or won’t he? But, it’s these conversations with the ghosts — all told in verse — that left me shook. The toxic masculinity is rampant and obvious (at least to me, an outsider): if someone shoots someone who then shoots someone, then (of course) someone else will have to shoot that someone. It’s a vicious cycle that just leaves everyone dead. (What is that adage? An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind?) It’s awful. And culture, tradition, racism, oppression, expectations… they don’t let these boys grieve the way they need to grieve. (And don’t get me started on gun culture.) I’m not entirely sure that’s what Reynolds was trying to get across, but that’s what I (again, as an outsider) got out of it.

Hopefully, books like these will help bring awareness to this. And maybe we can all stop killing each other just because of the color of our skin.