by Renee Watson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
A young adult librarian listserv I’m on frequently shares recommendations for books that are important to have on our radars and this one came up as an alternative to (but touted as much better than) The Hate U Give. I expected it to be roughly the same storyline, where a girl witnesses a traumatizing event of police brutality to someone close to her. However, that’s not where Watson’s story draws its power. Yes, Jade describes a case of a teen girl in her area brutally beaten by police and hospitalized, and she and her community are shaken deeply. But that is just one aspect of Jade’s junior year of high school that affects her, and this story encompasses all of them. Like Jade’s amazing collage artwork, stepping back and looking at the whole reveals its beauty and power.
Jade takes us through her junior year at a private (read: white) school in Portland, Oregon. She is black, and a scholarship student (and Watson does not lose this opportunity to show us opposing examples of how those two things are not mutually exclusive at St. Francis), and is invited to participate in a two-year-long mentorship program for smart, young, black women. She and her mentor get off to a rocky start, and soon she is ready to quit the program. While she and Maxine are both black and went to the same high school, they seem to be worlds apart in terms of SES and how they understand the world. More than that, Maxine dated a friend of Jade’s uncle. So, things between them are complicated and uneasy to say the least. But she doesn’t quit, and things do turn around for her eventually.
My favorite parts were her descriptions of Spanish class, especially her relationship with her Spanish teacher. Jade went to this school primarily because of their promise of study abroad opportunities, and when it looks like she won’t get them, she takes matters into her own hands – which happens to be the biggest lesson she learns over the book. Jade’s friendship with a fellow scholarship student, a white girl who rides her bus, also has some very touching learning moments. One last issue that is just briefly touched on is Jade’s body image – she is heavyset and at one point overhears a group of boys rating her and other women in a fast food restaurant. That she receives a 5 (out of 10) is the first indication of her looks, and the reader is as devastated as she is. Jade’s mother is another interesting character; she and Maxine initially also get off on the wrong foot in a power struggle of sorts, but she eventually comes around to Maxine.
There’s a lot in here (an incident in a store, another with a teacher at school) that can really shine a light on how it is for black people navigating white spaces and friendships with white people, in a way that is a lot more subtle than The Hate U Give – neither way is right or better, they’re just different. Overall, I wholly agree with the original recommender on the listserv – this is a hugely important book, and also one that is likely to be sadly overlooked in the fervor over Thomas’ timely and bold work.