Book Review: Justin (BlackTop series)

+-+555013674_70title: Justine (BlackTop)
author: LJ Alonge
date: Grosset and Dunlap/Penguin; June 2106
main character: Justin Shaw
ages 12-18

Justin is the first book in a trilogy written by newcomer L J Alonge. Justin is a tall, awkward 15 year-old who has more summer than money in his near future. He lives in a working class family in a beat down urban area. Justin wants to be somebody. He wants be make a name for himself and not just be seen as, well a nobody. His image is ruined because he cannot play basketball, because he does nothing spectacular and because his father is a homeless alcoholic who he happens to run into from time to time. Not good for the image, right? The story meanders through Justin’s summer giving us a character and events with which I believe many young people will relate.

The adult in me wants to figure out how Frank is Justin’s brother, wants to know why there are no consequences for the stupid stuff Justin does and particularly for the way he treats his father. I want to complain about yet another book with a black male who plays –or tries to play—basketball. Have we not had enough rough urban settings and derelict dads? I mean, there are black males who do like to read and who do read adventure, fantasy, science fiction and science and who don’t play basketball.

HOWEVER the fact that Justin is one more book about basketball, derelict dads and a run down urban community doesn’t mean that young readers will not engage with this character. That he reads like a real kid who just is not going to come of age in 144 pages will not deter young readers. They will hope that if nothing else, Justin figures out the game of basketball and gets a win.

Janae’s story is next. She’s already figured out the game. I wonder what her book will be about.

In Memory: Joyce Carol Thomas


Joyce Carol Thomas

Joyce Carol Thomas was an internationally known African American author. While I did not have the pleasure of ever meeting her, I did know her work. Thankfully for those of us now remembering or realizing Ms. Thomas, her work is available in bookstores and libraries for us to read.

The NewYork Times reported that Ms. Thomas passed away in California on 13 August. It was her first young adult novel, Marked by Fire, that brought her fame. The book won the National Book Award in 1983 and eventually had 2 sequels.

“In 1998, Ms. Thomas told The African American Review that much of her work was dedicated to showing young readers a version of black life that they had seldom seen in books.”

Her children’s books included the following.

The Blacker the Berry (poetry collection)
Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (poetry collection)
Bright Shadow
Water GirlLinda Brown, You Are Not Alone (editor; contributor)
Gingerbread Days
I have heard of a land
The gospel Cinderella
A Gathering of flowers : stories about being young in America
Hush songs : African American lullabies
The bowlegged rooster and other tales that signify
In the land of milk and honey

The Washington Post writes of her rural upbringing. “Ms. Thomas grew up working in the Oklahoma cotton fields, and as a child was burned on her leg and bore the scar for the rest of her life, her sister said. Abyssinia [main character in Marked by Fire] shares a similar background.” She took these elements of her life into her stories, finding beauty and purpose in the ordinary.

“I know of black boys and girls who squirm uncomfortably in their desks at the two-dimensional, unrelenting portrayal of young people as either victims of slavery or perennial do-ragwearers hanging out on a stoop next to a garbage can,” she told the African American Review in 1998. “There are black American stories somewhere between slavery and ghetto that also deserve telling.” source

Ms Thomas taught for more than two decades at the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Tennessee and at Purdue University. She is survived by children and grandchildren. And, her books.

Getting Down. Getting Over.

I’m beginning to feel like a one trick pony once again writing about When We Was Fierce. There’s just a little more to say on this front. And, this morning my head was filling with thoughts for several new posts, a possible new series and the idea that I really need to get back to interviewing authors. Know that I do have an entire repertoire in me; I am not obsessing.

Every now and then I do a little searching on Bing to see if perhaps Candlewick has said anything, come to any decision about the book. Will they just let it fade into the sunset? Will there be no other statement from them or the author? In my searching, I’ve run across stories about the postponement of the book in both French and Swedish newspapers with both papers containing information from different sources. Just prior to that, London’s Guardian ran an article about the postponement as well. In Australia, author Ambelin Kwaymullina recapped the events leading to the postponement relating them to the Australian literary industry.

This conversation should not be ignored by any Australian writer with aspirations to being published in the US, especially since we do not – yet – have the dedicated cyber-spaces in Australia that will critically examine representation issues.  This means books that are not challenged (at least not in publicly available discussions) in an Australian context may well be challenged in the States. Second, I believe that many Australian authors who write to experiences of exclusion not their own are doing so out of a genuine desire to support marginalised peoples. But I also believe that most authors lack the necessary knowledge to manifest that intent into reality – and in the absence of such knowledge, authors are all too likely to produce narratives that do the exact opposite of what they intended to achieve. Thus, an understanding of the twenty first century diversity conversation is essential knowledge for any author seeking to write of others with integrity and respect.

I know that the struggle to improve representation of marginalized children in books in the US goes back to 1933 when Sterling Brown first critiqued images portraying African American children in literature. I know that there are people alive who have spent most of their adult life trying to improve this representation. I know that racism, bigotry and misrepresentation are global issues but, I did not realize that the United States was being watched by so many regarding its diversity in children’s literature, that we’re on the precipice of global change. It’s been so bad here for so long that I’d like to believe that some other country is getting it right.

You may remember that Dr. Sonia Rodriquez called out the Latinx community, asking what WWWF meant for Latinx kids. Well, last week, Latinas Chat Media discussed The Getdown and When We Was Fierce. They definitely took the discussion to the next level, assessing how we sometimes give members of our own community a pass when they really ought to be called to task. Or should they? Should their artistry speak for itself, or should the offensive nature of their work be called to question? Should we do that to our own? Their discussion illustrates the complexity of the topic of critically reviewing books.

Their chat actually began with a critique of the Getdown, a new Netflix series set in the Bronx in 1977. The mini-series is a coming of age story of Mylene, Zeke and hip hop in terms of its art, music and language. This Afro-Latinx story was created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, neither of whom is Afro-Latinx. I’d seen the series on Netflix but not until I heard it discussed during this chat did I consider watching it. And, I’m glad I did. Luhhrmann and Guirgis manage to deliver a story that does what When We Were Fierce could not. Their Bronx is a community with violence, not a violent community. While Zeke, Mylene and Shaolin all have choices to make the film fully explores their options within their own community. It is literally burning throughout the series but the characters repeatedly find reason to embrace it and call it home. And the language? The language in the songs, the graffiti and the poetry is hiphop. While WWWF attempted to be lyrical with made up words, The Getdown achieves it through lighting, syncopated music and a certain Kung Fu quality. While many of these elements are not available in printed text (OK, none of them are!) both formats begin with words. Words are transformative.

Rights Reports: July

A snapshot of what’s on the horizon from authors of color or Native Americans, originally appearing in Publishers Weekly.

Little, Brown has bought at auction Emily X.R. Pan‘s debut YA novel The Astonishing Color of After, plus an a second untitled standalone YA novel. In the first, a girl is convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird after committing suicide, and attempts to find her in Taiwan. Spring 2018.

Atheneum has bought Carole Boston Weatherford‘s In Your Hands, to be illustrated by Brian Pinkney, a picture book prayer that speaks of a black mother’s hopes for her son. Fall 2017.

Julia Maguire at Knopf has bought world rights to Potato Kingby Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Don Tate, a picture book about the life of Junius George Groves, a former slave who started a potato empire. Spring 2018.

S&S’s Salaam Reads has preempted world rights to Saints, Misfits, Monster and Mayhem, the debut YA novel by teacher and artist Sajidah Kutty. The novel follows 15-year-old Janna Yusuf, daughter of the only divorced mother at the mosque, as she examines her faith and relationships in the wake of an assault. The book will be Salaam’s first YA novel. Summer 2017.

FSG has acquired The Big Bed, written by Bunmi Laditan, a blogger, author, and humorist also known as The Honest Toddler. The book features a clever little girl who tries to interest her father in his own big bed so she can sleep in her parents’ bed with her mother. Tom Knight is on board to illustrate. Winter 2018.

Michelle Meadows and illustrated by Ebony Glenn. It’s a picture book biography of Janet Collins, regarded as the true first black ballerina to dance for a classical ballet company and an inspiration to others that followed. Winter 2018.

Atheneum has bought Carole Boston Weatherford‘s How Sweet the Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace, to be illustrated by Frank Morrison, a picture book about the history and legacy of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Summer 2018.

Amazon/Two Lions has acquired the latest collaboration by Anna Kang and Chris Weyant, the Geisel-winning team behind You Are (Not) Small. Their new book is the untitled story of an eraser who finds herself at the center of a desktop drama. Fall 2018.

Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books has bought Front Desk, a middle-grade novel from debut author Kelly Yang. Based on the author’s life, the story follows Mia, the daughter of recent Chinese immigrants; as she helps her parents manage the Caliheim Motel, Mia must keep many secrets from her classmates and the motel’s mean owner – including the truth about the fellow immigrants her father’s hiding. 2018.

Scholastic has bought, in an exclusive submission, Flora AhnPugling Rivalry, an illustrated chapter book depiction of the fictional life of the author-illustrator’s pugs Sunny and Rosy, based on her popular pug blog Bah Humpug. Spring 2018, with the second book to follow in fall.

Henry Holt has acquired world rights toRuby’s Chinese New Year, a debut picture book written by Vickie Lee and illustrated by Joey Chou. The story follows a girl who delivers a gift to her grandmother with help from the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Winter 2018.

August Releases

for a complete list of this years MG/YA books by Native American and Authors of Color click here.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw; Sky Pony Press. (ages 11-13). Debut author.
Yuriko is happy growing up in Hiroshima when it’s just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and air raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the atomic bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s first-hand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding readers that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

Born Bright by C. Nicole Mason; St. Martin’s Press.
While showing us her own path out of poverty, Mason examines the conditions that make it nearly impossible to escape and exposes the presumption harbored by many―that the poor don’t help themselves enough.

Zoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods; Nancy Paulsen Books. ages 8-12
Zoe Reindeer considers herself “just Zoe”—never measuring up to her too-perfect older sister or her smarty-pants little brother. Truthfully, though, she’d rather just blend in with the plants at the family business, Doc Reindeer’s Exotic Plant Wonderland. She does have one friend, Q, and he’s the best one ever—but he’s moving away, leaving Zoe to fend for herself, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do without him. That is until a tall astronomer from Madagascar comes to the nursery looking for a Baobab tree. His visit starts a ball rolling that makes Zoe long for real adventures, not just imaginary ones—and shows her that perhaps her first real adventure is finally beginning.

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi; Dutton Books for Young Readers. ages 12 and up
There are only three things that matter to twelve-year-old Alice Alexis Queensmeadow: Mother, who wouldn’t miss her; magic and color, which seem to elude her; and Father, who always loved her. The day Father disappears from Ferenwood he takes nothing but a ruler with him. But it’s been almost three years since then, and Alice is determined to find him. She loves her father even more than she loves adventure, and she’s about to embark on one to find the other. But bringing Father home is no small matter. In order to find him she’ll have to travel through the mythical, dangerous land of Furthermore, where down can be up, paper is alive, and left can be both right and very, very wrong. Her only companion is a boy named Oliver whose own magical ability is based in lies and deceit–and with a liar by her side in a land where nothing is as it seems, it will take all of Alice’s wits (and every limb she’s got) to find Father and return home to Ferenwood in one piece. On her quest to find Father, Alice must first find herself–and hold fast to the magic of love in the face of loss.

Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; 10 and up
In a haunting yet hopeful novel in verse, award-winning author Margarita Engle tells the story of Antonio Chuffat, a young man of African, Chinese, and Cuban descent who became a champion of civil rights. Asia, Africa, Europe—Antonio Chuffat’s ancestors clashed and blended on the beautiful island of Cuba. Yet for most Cubans in the nineteenth century, life is anything but beautiful. The country is fighting for freedom from Spain. Enslaved Africans and nearly-enslaved Chinese indentured servants are for.ced to work long, backbreaking hours in the fields. So Antonio feels lucky to have found a good job as a messenger, where his richly blended cultural background is an asset. Through his work he meets Wing, a young Chinese fruit seller who barely escaped the anti-Asian riots in San Francisco, and his sister Fan, a talented singer. With injustice all around them, the three friends are determined that violence will not be the only way to gain liberty.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds; Atheneum. ages 10 and up.
Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel of a brand-new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves. Ghost has a crazy natural talent, but no formal training. If he can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all starting with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who blew his own shot at success by using drugs, and who is determined to keep other kids from blowing their shots at life.

Makoons (Birchbark House) by Louise Erdrich; HarperCollins. ages 8-12
In the sequel to Chickadee, acclaimed author Louise Erdrich continues her award-winning Birchbark House series with the story of an Ojibwe family in nineteenth-century America. Named for the Ojibwe word for little bear, Makoons and his twin, Chickadee, have traveled with their family to the Great Plains of Dakota Territory. There they must learn to become buffalo hunters and once again help their people make a home in a new land. But Makoons has had a vision that foretells great challenges—challenges that his family may not be able to overcome.

Based on Louise Erdrich’s own family history, this fifth book in the series features black-and-white interior illustrations, a note from the author about her research, as well as a map and glossary of Ojibwe terms.

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Night) by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill. ages 12 and up
Following the events of the Fourth Trial, an army led by Masks hunts the two fugitives as they escape the city of Serra and journey across the vast lands of the Martial Empire.Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—and save her brother, whose knowledge of Serric steel is the key to the Scholars’ future. And Elias is determined to stay by Laia’s side…even if it means giving up his own chance at freedom. But Elias and Laia will have to fight every step of the way if they’re going to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.  Helene’s mission is horrifying, unwanted, and clear: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.

Unscripted Joss Byrd: A Novel by Lygia Day Peñaflo; Roaring Book Press. ages 12-18
Hollywood critics agree. Joss Byrd is “fiercely emotional,” a young actress with “complete conviction,” and a “powerhouse.” Joss Byrd is America’s most celebrated young actress, but on the set of her latest project, a gritty indie film called The Locals, Joss’s life is far from glamorous. While struggling with her mother’s expectations, a crush on her movie brother, and a secret that could end her career, Joss must pull off a performance worthy of a star. When her renowned, charismatic director demands more than she is ready to deliver, Joss must go off-script to stay true to herself.

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia; Disney Hyperion. ages 12 and up
Reshma is a college counselor’s dream. She’s the top-ranked senior at her ultra-competitive Silicon Valley high school, with a spotless academic record and a long roster of extracurriculars. But there are plenty of perfect students in the country, and if Reshma wants to get into Stanford, and into med school after that, she needs the hook to beat them all. What’s a habitual over-achiever to do? Land herself a literary agent, of course. Which is exactly what Reshma does after agent Linda Montrose spots an article she wrote forHuffington Post. Linda wants to represent Reshma, and, with her new agent’s help scoring a book deal, Reshma knows she’ll finally have the key to Stanford.

But she’s convinced no one would want to read a novel about a study machine like her. To make herself a more relatable protagonist, she must start doing all the regular American girl stuff she normally ignores. For starters, she has to make a friend, then get a boyfriend. And she’s already planned the perfect ending: after struggling for three hundred pages with her own perfectionism, Reshma will learn that meaningful relationships can be more important than success-a character arc librarians and critics alike will enjoy.

Guest Post: What Does When We Was Fierce Mean for Latinx Kids?


Shortly after I started reading e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce (WWWF), whose release has been postponed due the incredible and critical work of Edith Campbell, Jennifer Baker, K.T. Horning, and Zetta Elliott, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police. I already had a difficult time getting through the novel in verse simply because the language was difficult to follow. At first I thought it was me. I was with it on page one and then something happened on page two. I couldn’t follow the text anymore. I wasn’t sure what was being said and I had to go back to re-read the text several times. I found myself needing to translate the made up vernacular in my head in order to keep reading. I was rewriting as I was reading. Now, I don’t pretend to be than expert in all things cool and hip. I usually need my 16 year-old-sister to explain current slang terms to me. The youth I work with usually tease me because the slang I do use is “old school.” However, I don’t live under a rock and therefore know that the language in WWWF is not how black youth talk. I kept reading and I kept finding more issues with the story. I didn’t like that Ricky-Ricky, a black youth with an unspecified mental illness, is disposable. His death (which happens right away) is used as a catalyst to start Theodore’s, or “T,” own exploration of his manhood. Eventually, T’s own sexism and misogyny got to be too much for me. Despite almost having been stabbed to death, T still finds time to oversexualize the nurse between getting interrogated by the police and getting scolded by his mother. While the narrative is centered on the gang violence in the community there are various forms of violence all over the place—like, there really doesn’t seem to be a safe space anywhere. Youth are getting beat by their parents, mothers are overworked, fathers are absent, young women are pregnant and/or oversexualized. It was really too much. After learning about the deaths of Sterling and Castile I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading. I needed a minute.

My own research on Latinx children’s and young adult literature focuses on the ways the genre can be used as a tool for healing in the lives of Latinx readers. As a teaching artist, I use Latinx kid lit in K-12 spaces to encourage my students to use their personal experiences as a platform to find their voice and create new worlds. As a college professor, I utilize Latinx Kid Lit to complicate existing understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Basically, I genuinely believe that Latinx kid lit can improve the lives of Latinx readers because this genre has the potential to challenge existing oppressive knowledges. That is, if society says Latinxs are “others” then Latinx kid lit can demonstrate the opposite. However, the genre’s potential to transform the world around us and dismantle oppressions in our communities can’t be possible if we don’t ask more from the publishing industry and from our Latinx authors. When We Was Fierce is an example of what not to do. In 2016 alone over 100 black lives have been lost at the hands of police. A young adult book that centers black lives written by a Latinx author could have been an extraordinary opportunity to discuss black and brown issues, ally-ship and solidarity, blackness in our communities, and police brutality at large. Instead, there’s a book I couldn’t possibly give to any youth for fear that it would do more harm than good. The story exploits too many stereotypes about black communities and “at-risk” youth that, in my mind, only served to reinforce how deep anti-blackness runs in Latinx communities.

Certainly, there’s a great need for diverse stories in children’s literature but diversity can’t exist for diversity’s sake and Latinx authors definitely can’t ride on the coat tails of “diversity” in order to branch out. Who can write what and whether one can write outside one’s own culture are complicated conversations. What is clear though is that too many white authors benefit from writing about diverse experiences while diverse authors continue to struggle to get published in the first place. It is also widely known that as far as the dominant American narrative goes there are many stories that demean, stereotype, marginalize, or completely erase people of color and native people. Hence, the need for diverse stories. I’m not entirely saying that one cannot write outside their own culture. Matt de la Peña wrote a beautiful story that centered a black boy and his grandmother in The Last Stop on Market Street and went on to win a Newbery. Ashley Hope Perez’s historical fiction novel Out of Darkness, based on the New London school explosion in Texas, has also won multiple awards. Diverse stories outside of our own experiences can be done well if one takes the time to learn and respect the culture. However, when authors attempt to write about another’s culture and fail miserably they need to be called out. Charlton-Trujillo is a self-identified white-Mexican, which as far as I’m concerned means that WWWF is a conversation that needs to be had in Latinx kid lit circles. Honestly, we can’t claim de la Peña’s win for Latinx kid lit and shy away when another one of ours writes a story that ended up being real anti-black, despite her good intention. We can’t celebrate diversity when a Latinx author wins a coveted award for a story that centers a culture outside of his own and not say peep about a novel that unfortunately further marginalizes black youth. I kept reading WWWF and just didn’t get it. Some of T’s struggles definitely resonates with some of the struggles the youth I’ve worked with deal with on a daily basis. Gang violence is insidious and can dominate a lot of aspects of a youth’s life. But at some point, maybe immediately, in WWWF this realness got lost and replaced by an unfortunate consumption and nasty regurgitation of black pain. I couldn’t finish the story. I was too afraid to read about any more black people dying.

What then does WWWF and current conversations on the need for diverse stories mean for the future of Latinx Kid Lit? My hope is that this novel in verse can serve as an opportunity to have this conversation. It is just as important to encourage our Latinx authors in their writing as much as it important that we hold them accountable for the stories they present to us. And maybe I’m asking for too much. I’m not a published Latinx kid lit author (while I certainly have those aspirations) so I’m not too familiar with what happens behind the scenes of the publishing industry. But I am a Latinx kid lit scholar and I’ve researched and read enough books in the genre to know that yes, we need more of them and different types of them, but that it’s also time to have critical conversations about anti-blackness in our communities and about the ways it manifest itself in our kids’ books. There are certainly not enough Latinx kid lit books that center Afro-Latinx experiences. Off the top of my head, I can list more books with white-Latinx or light-skinned Latinx and their tears at not being able to fit in with their Latinx communities than I can name books that positively represent Afro-Latinx youth. It is also important that those of us who review Latinx kid lit be critical and point out books that can potentially do more harm than good. I know I need to be better about doing this. It has been easier to write reviews on books I love than to critique books that make me side-eye too often. Even though the release date of WWWF has been postponed, and maybe a lot of us don’t even have access to the book, it is still imperative to engage in conversations this novel has spurred. Again, WWWF can be an opportunity to create significant dialogues about what diversity means for Latinx kid lit, how anti-blackness in our communities impacts whose stories get told, and how we can hold each other accountable.

Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. She is a contributing writer for Latinx in Kid Lit. She is working on her first middle grade novel. Follow Sonia on Twitter, @mariposachula8.