Lan and her family are the last surviving humans after Earth is destroyed. They’ve been living in a colony on Mars but finally struck a deal with the citizens of Choom, a distant planet, to allow them to settle there as refugees. But by the time they get to Choom 20 years later (in suspended animation), the government has changed hands and the new government is completely opposed to the idea because humans are violent and they don’t want any violence or conflict of any kind. They finally agree to let Lan and her family (her mother is the chief negotiator) come down on a trial basis while everyone else stays on the ship. There are three main species: the Zhuri, who are the majority and run everything; the Krik, who have the second-highest population; and the Ororo, who are the smartest. The Zhuri leaders have effectively banned all emotion, and anything that provokes emotion, such as singing, and Lan’s sister Ila won an “America’s Got Talent” type show back on Earth with singing and the humans were hoping to win the residents of Choom over with her skills.
This book raises a number of really interesting issues. One is the very real, very near future of humans destroying Earth, and then what happens? And we could be based on our history of violence as a species and denied asylum elsewhere. Then there’s the idea of asylum seekers as “us” and not “them” which is a change from how it’s generally understood, not to mention the way the humans are shown in the Choom media. Lan and her family are frustrated over and over again by the fake news. And then the Zhuri and their emotion-denying. Wow. You can only clamp down on your own nature for so long before it erupts, and in the end it was Ila’s music that won them over. It would have been a different story if the species were actually completely peaceful, but they were just pretending to be to maintain order, which rarely works.
I was also particularly struck by how the different species’ foods were described. The Zhuri drink a gray liquid that smells revolting to humans, and it is described as an efficient way to nourish them. They also do not create “body garbage” like humans do, which was entertaining. The Krik also eat something gross, but the Ororo eat varied-colored cubes of food that is tasty to humans. The Krik were the first to inhabit Choom, and they were joined by the Zhuri later and then the Ororo. It turns out that there used to be a fourth species, the Nug, but the Zhuri killed them all. So all their claims of peace were not entirely truthful. The reason I docked it a half-star is that the resolution to the conflict came right at the very end, so we didn’t really get to see the humans settling into and enjoying Choom society at all, but maybe there will be a sequel?
Seventh-grader Lexi just wants to maintain order and balance in her world, which is usually frighteningly out of whack. Her 4-year-old brother is in and out of hospitals a lot and her parents are stressed, her mother even losing her job because of the time she has to devote to his care. Lexi buys four-leaf clovers from her classmate to help with her luck and is constantly making deals with the universe for added protection. She’s also struggling with her best friend abandoning her for a new friend, when all Lexi wants is for things to continue just as they were. So when she comes across a bag of wishing stones, she has a lot of wishes to make – if they even work. She tries one and it does seem to work – except not exactly how she imagined. By the time she gets to her fourth wish, things are really out of hand and she seems to be in a bit of a pickle. But her aunt saves the day in surprising ways and Lexi learns a lot. In the end, though things go back to how they were before, Lexi is changed.
This book is delightful. I can see kids with anxiety and a need for control really identifying with Lexi. I loved that Lexi breaks out of her comfort zone and tries out for the dance team, even after a really embarrassing first attempt. Her best friend, Cassa, reveals that she is moving to England, and by the end of the book, Lexi is okay with that (and even starts to make friends with the once-hated interloper, Marina). I especially like that Lexi’s aunt also comes out of her shell a bit and reconnects with her childhood best friend. There are lots of little details and hints planted masterfully here and there and it’s just a very sweet story.
When I first finished this book, I would not have given it 5 stars, but after pondering it for a while, I overcame most of my beef with the nonlinear way in which the story is told. Claudia tells the story of the disappearance of her best friend, Monday Charles, and how she discovered what happened to her. I normally really dislike nonlinear narratives but Jackson executes this one, if not flawlessly, then at least brilliantly. Chapters are titled The Before, The After, A Year Before the Before, Two Years Before the Before, and then a series with month titles, moving presumably through one of those years/times, though it is unclear when. When I finished reading, I felt like I still didn’t know a lot and had a lot of questions, so I went back through and re-read just the After chapters in order, and things made a lot more sense. And Jackson had to tell the story in that way in order for you to really experience how Claudia experienced the story. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the story because Jackson’s reveal of the plot is excellent, but I will say that my poor sensitive soul was WIRED reading this too late at night, so tread gently. Once I got into it though, I devoured it, so maybe devote a weekend day to it. I will also say that I was extremely glad to read that part of Claudia’s (and others’) healing at the end included going to therapy.
Jordan is starting 7th grade at a private school worlds away from his Washington Heights, New York neighborhood. He has to figure out how to fit in when everyone there seems to be rich and/or white and makes assumptions about him. Craft does a great job of portraying a day full of typical micro-aggressions (being called by another Black kid’s name, a bumbling teacher who’s always asking if anyone’s offended by something he just blurted out, being awkwardly stared at whenever the topic of race comes up). Jordan tries to make friends with a rich Black kid named Maury, but they have nothing in common. He eventually becomes friends with the rich white (but also modest and unpretentious) kid, Liam, who is assigned to show him around on the first day, and eventually also becomes friends with another Black kid, Drew. Jordan and Drew joke around about their micro-aggressions and get called out by a teacher who fancies herself an ally but is arguably the worst offender. My coworker’s and my favorite bit was the description of a book the boys are encouraged to read because it has a Black protagonist, which is hilariously described as being a gritty tale of urban grit and grittiness (or something – I had to send the book onto the next person in line so I can’t quote from it directly). It reminded me a little bit of The Hate U Give in how the main characters code switch in their two very different environments.