Tag Archives: race

New Kid by Jerry Craft

9780062691200

by Jerry Craft
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

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.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

9781432849269

by Dashka Slater
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In October of 2013, an agender teen named Sasha fell asleep on their bus ride home. When they woke up, they were on fire. Dashka Slater tells the story of how this happened, who Sasha was, who Richard, the teen who set Sasha on fire was, and what happened after. It’s told in a narrative nonfiction style that worked extremely well and there were only two things that bothered me.

One was that each chapter was very short, ranging from a half page to maybe 5 pages at the longest. While this worked very well for keeping suspense (and keeping me turning pages quickly), it also had the effect of creating a somewhat disjointed narrative, and making me think that Slater couldn’t write a longer chapter on any given topic. The book’s five sections did help me see the overarching themes, and it was roughly chronological, but it felt made for someone with the attention span of a flea. Having recently read similar adult narrative nonfiction such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I felt that the short chapter style shortchanged both the readers and Sasha and Richard.

The other thing that bothered me was that Slater went into some detail about restorative justice and in the end it seems that nothing really happened with that. I felt a bit betrayed by that, since I was getting pretty invested in having that tie everything up with a nice, neat bow. But as it is, the story is one of forgiveness and learning more about people who are different. There is a lot about the gender spectrum and pronouns and romantic orientation (which is different from sexual orientation) and overall I think an important and well-told tale.

Blended by Sharon Draper

9781442495005

by Sharon Draper
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This review is going to be chock full of spoilers because it was advertised (on the front flap; Draper’s website gives the tiniest hint of what’s to come) as a book about a biracial girl in search of her identity but it does NOT say that she survives a police shooting. I think I know why they left that out (my guess is that getting shot by the police is never something you’re prepared for in real life) but for a middle grade novel I do NOT think that should be just sprung on a reader. I know Millennials are widely mocked for their trigger warnings, but there is something about it. It just seems unnecessarily cruel to not give a 10-year-old (or younger) a heads up about reading about that.

I wasn’t a huge fan of this book almost from the start, but I bumped up its star rating because in the end I do think it’s an important story to tell, even if I disagree with certain aspects of its telling. So let’s back up and start with the basics. Blended is the story of 11-year-old Isabella, whose white mother and Black father have been divorced for a few years. They share custody, with Isabella changing homes every Sunday at 3pm on the dot, which she resents. They each have a new partner who lives with them and Isabella even has a quasi-step-brother. She gets along well with each and during the story each couple gets engaged, which you might think would be the main plot, but no. Isabella’s dad at one point says that he and her mom “didn’t see color” when they started dating, which I thought was a really weird thing for a Black author to have a Black character say. I’d be curious to hear Draper’s thoughts on that.

Some racial violence appears at Isabella’s school, in the form of a noose appearing in her friend Imani’s gym locker, and a white boy gets suspended for it. (It was obvious from previous scenes who put the noose there but for some reason no one knows for sure who it was at first, which was weird.) Imani is shaken up by that for a long time, but then that plot goes underground until they are followed in a fancy store at the mall by a security guard. I was glad that Imani and Isabella had each other (as Isabella tells her mother, she knows the Black half of her is what people see, and it’s what she puts down on school forms – she says it’s “stronger” which is an interesting word choice) because their other best friend, Heather, is a white girl.

I really appreciated Draper’s inclusion of just a few of the micro-aggressions that Isabella and Imani face (like when Izzy’s crush – a white boy – tells her that she must get her good looks from her white mother) and hope that it helps non-Black kids understand what that’s like. Isabella’s teacher tries to address racial issues in class and as far as I can tell does a decent job.

And then we get to the shooting. It just comes out of absolutely nowhere, which I’m sure is how it feels to those who have experienced it. Isabella’s on her way to her piano recital when the police pull Darren over, thinking he had just robbed a bank. They handcuff him and pin him down and tell her not to move either. When they uncuff him, with no apology, Isabella reaches into her pocket to get her cell phone and call her parents to tell them they’ll be late and a jumpy policewoman shoots her. The bullet grazes Izzy’s arm; she falls and hits her head and is taken to the hospital.

This story was just all over the place, the writing was a little hokey, and frankly had too much going on for me. I’m not sure it’s a middle-grade book, though I don’t doubt that 4th and 5th graders need age-appropriate stories about racial violence and police shootings. It just didn’t feel like Draper’s best, and I do think kids deserve a heads up before entering into an intense story like this.

You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino

9780545956246

by Alex Gino
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

When Jilly’s baby sister, Emma, is born, they learn that she is hard of hearing. While her parents hang back and investigate their options, Jilly throws herself into learning American Sign Language. Bolstered by her friendship with a Deaf boy through an online forum for fans of her favorite fantasy series, she tries to contribute to her parents’ decisions. Her bull-in-a-china-shop approach alienates Derek, who she knows by his online handle Profound, and who she has a crush on. Meanwhile, racial tensions in Jilly’s extended family come to a head at Thanksgiving, when her uncle and grandmother show their racism, overtly and subtly, respectively, and alienate Aunt Joanne’s wife, Aunt Alicia. Joanne and Alicia storm out of Thanksgiving with their two Black children and do not return for Christmas. These events, alongside two murders of Black teens by police, kickstart conversations between Jilly and her parents, who admit that they had sought to protect her from worry by not talking about it. Jilly wisely (with Aunt Alicia’s counsel) advises them to talk about things – with her and with others. Jilly herself stands up when her family continues to say hurtful things even in Alicia’s absence.

I really appreciate seeing the conversations and the language that I’m seeing in my circles reflected in a more national platform. Ideas such as white allies stepping in and educating other white people when they commit micro-aggressions (or macro ones, for that matter), not avoiding talking about race with our white families, apologizing when you make mistakes (and you will make mistakes). Aunt Alicia is amazingly patient with Jilly. Derek is less patient, but the micro-aggressions that affect him are perhaps more realistic and detailed, and also hit on both misunderstandings around Deaf culture and deafness and on racial bias and racism and micro-aggressions. He informs Jilly that her sister’s cochlear implant is not her decision or his so he couldn’t weigh in on it and she can’t either. In the end, her parents have to make the decision for her, and for themselves. (They do end up going with the implant but also embracing ASL. I appreciated the two codas at the end so we can see how things turned out.)

Of note is that the first audiologist they visit views hearing loss as something near catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. They are advised to proceed as soon as possible with surgery on their newborn and to not “confuse” Emma by signing to her. Jilly’s parents are going through a lot and overwhelmed so their reaction to this audiologist isn’t clear until a while later, when they reveal that they had “differences of opinion” with her and sought a new audiologist. Gino’s author’s note states that, sadly, audiologists like her do exist, but that Deaf culture is to be celebrated and encouraged. Teaching children ASL does not confuse them or inhibit them. There are more details in Gino’s author’s note about that and about white allyship, and they detail all the people they consulted when writing this book, and asking forgiveness from people of color in having two Black people murdered as part of the story.

Breakout by Kate Messner

9781681195360

by Kate Messner
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Nora’s summer is shaping up to be very ordinary, at least until 2 inmates break out of the maximum-security prison her dad runs in their small town in the Adirondacks. At nearly the same time, a girl named Elidee moves to town with her mother so that they can be closer to her brother, who is in the prison. The mainly white town is not very welcoming to Elidee, who is black, and this, paired with the racial issues surrounding the escaped inmates (one of whom is white and one is black), put Nora through an interesting racial coming-of-age. She learns a lot from her older brother, Sean, who includes nuggets of wisdom like, “Don’t burden Elidee with your questions, come to me,” and goes after their father on criminal justice reform. Their father responds by saying things like “I’m not the judge, I just take care of them when they get to me.” There were also some honest reflections like when Elidee complains about white people and how you have to “keep teaching them.” I was intrigued to see that Messner is white and that she consulted some people of color and I wonder what this book would have sounded like written by a black author and with a black protagonist.

Nora’s best friend Lizzie’s grandmother gets swept up in the crime, and that angle is equally interesting and adds new dimensions to the complexities. It’s fascinating to see how Nora grapples with the gray areas – how you can love your uncle the cop and also be wary of cops and how they treat people of color. She does tremendous growing over the summer. Also of note is that the story is told not through traditional narration and dialogue but through a collection of different media that Nora draws on under the guise of submitting it to the community time capsule. Nora is a budding investigative journalist, so she writes her own news articles as well as including CNN reports, audio recordings of conversations, text message conversations between herself, Lizzie, and her family, Lizzie’s parody articles, and letters to the future Wolf Creek time capsule readers, among others.

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

9780545846608

by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ravi is brand new to his New Jersey classroom, straight from Bangalore. His teacher claims not to understand him when he talks and sends him with the Resource Room teacher with Joe, who has Auditory Processing Disorder, which makes Ravi furious. He’s sure he’s found a friend in Dillon Samreen, the only other Indian in his class (even though he’s an ABCD), but the teacher’s actions, not to mention Dillon’s natural malevolence, undermine their friendship. The story alternates between Ravi’s point of view and Joe’s, which shows aspects of each boy’s culture through their own eyes and through the eyes of an outsider, which was a really neat device and one I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. There’s even two glossaries at the back, one for words from Ravi’s world and one for words from Joe’s world, and some of them are defined in the other’s terms, like “Trunk: storage area at the rear of a vehicle, in India known as a dickey or boot” or “Baseball: an American game similar to cricket.” Ravi also makes it well known to the reader both how to pronounce his name (emphasis on the second syllable) and how important it is to him. Joe is the first person outside Ravi’s family to get his name right, and Ravi notices.

The story takes place over one week, Ravi’s first week of school. His singleminded focus on Dillon leads him to think Dillon is nice and Joe is mean and stupid, but luckily he comes to his senses by the end of the week, especially when Dillon tricks him into eating beef, which he explains is a sin for Hindus. The students are given an assignment to bring in an object that represents them, which brings Ravi and Joe together against Dillon and they become friends. This is what I love about middle grade fiction; everything ties up neatly and people learn things about themselves and how to get along.

Other interesting things about this story in particular: Joe’s dad is away driving a truck a lot, but when he is there, he spouts some hate against immigrants, but sort of redeems himself with a loving note to Joe, which was interesting. Joe’s mom takes a job at his school as a cafeteria employee, which embarrasses him to no end, especially once Dillon gets wind of it. Ravi’s teacher also displays some bias against him, mispronouncing his name, disregarding how he has been taught (especially math) and telling him she can’t understand him due to his accent. When she says English is not his native language, she shows her own (and many Americans’) ignorance; however, this exchange and others show a lot of nuance in our multicultural society. To Americans’ ears, the Indian accent is quite different and can be hard to understand, even if you have heard it a lot. Ravi also shows he is quite defensive and quick to anger when it comes to insulting his intelligence or social standing, but he realizes that his teacher is not always wrong about him. Overall, the nuance in particular is very well done and is a testament to how well these two authors work together to show both cultures.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

9780545946179

by Varian Johnson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

When I came across a new book by the author of the Great Greene Heist, I had to put my name on the waiting list – especially when I learned that it was about puzzles and mysteries! It would be perfect for one of my patrons who’s really into Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and The Book Scavenger.

What a rich, complex story this is! The main storyline is that 12-year-old Candice and her mother move to her grandmother’s old house in South Carolina from Atlanta for the summer while her parents separate. Candice discovers that her grandmother, Abigail, had been knee-deep in solving an old mystery and picks up where she had left off, with the help of 11-year-old Brandon who lives across the street. In solving the mystery and all its accompanying puzzles, they learn a lot about the history of the city and Candice’s grandmother’s involvement. The reader is privy to relevant scenes from the past, which are printed on gray pages, and some pieces of the story from Abigail’s point of view, which are printed on black paper with white letters, and which all come together at the end.

But this is so much more than a simple – or even complex – mystery story. It’s also the story of Candice and Brandon’s personal and family struggles. It’s also overwhelmingly a story of identity, particularly racial identity, both from the 1950s and present-day. There’s so much to chew on that I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. Some of the parts about race relations seemed a bit heavy-handed to me as an adult, but I have a lot of context and it’s probably just right for kids, especially white kids, who may have no context for it. I really appreciated that Johnson included extensive notes at the end about Jim Crow, the end of segregation, and present-day police brutality. As I said, it’s about so much more than the core storyline, and it’s an important story to have today.