book review: Perfect Liar

+-+286271684_140title: Perfect Liars
author: Kimberly Reid
date: Tu Books/Lee & Low; 2016
main character: Andrea “Drea” Faraday
young adult realistic fiction

I was excited to see a new release from Kim Reid and for the most part, I was not let down. Perfect Liars is an innovative story that reflect today’s teens in their high risk behaviors, engagement with technology and diversity in friendships.

We meet Drea as she pulls into her upper class Atlanta driveway that it stocked with some of the most expensive décor around. This materialistic display is necessary to set the book’s tone. Drea is an extremely intelligent African American high school student returning home from an advanced summer school session. She has conflicts with her family’s background and is trying to find her own path in life. [SPOILER] Her older brother, with whom she has a close relationship, recently graduated from the police academy.  The second voice narrative takes us inside his head and begins to give him a prominent role in the story, but this doesn’t continue throughout this book. Reid also begins to explore how Drea’s relationship with him changes once he joins the force, but this is not developed throughout the story. In today’s atmosphere where the police are so much under question, it could have made for an interesting story line. [END SPOILER]

Drea is an extremely wishy washy character, the influences on her past are strong and she has to find the resolve within herself to change. She struggles with how much she has and how she got it. She initially judges those who are less affluent than her by her own standards but, through Reid’s skillful writing, Drea comes to see these peers for who they are and all they bring to the table, not as individuals who are lacking in some way. Her development over the arc of the book is minimal, but this is clearly intended to be a series.

I’m really trying to avoid giving away too much in the series. Key figures disappear in the book and those most affected just don’t seem that worried. That felt odd to me. Most of what is written in a book review is sheer opinion, although there are times when inconsistencies, inaccuracies, stereotypes and such can be documented. One such opinion I have relates to a conversation between Drea and Jason, one of her peers.

“Who was the girl I saw you with last Friday?”
“Hello to you, too.”
“You aren’t one of those guys, are you?” Drea asked. “The kind who call girls females?”
“When guys use it that way, it sounds vulgar for some reason. Or, like we’re prey on one of the animal shows on TV.”
“Does every girl think that?” Jason asked, looking truly puzzled, as though this had never occurred to him.
“Yes, every one of us, including the girl you saw me with. Just a heads up, since you’re clearly interested.” (p. 239)

I felt a strong author voice here and I disagreed with it so much, particularly when this young lady used ‘girl’. The males in the book were guys, not boys. These are juniors and seniors in high school, not children. Yes, it hit a sore spot with me because I view ‘girls’ as children and other readers may not have any problem with this at all. But, this type of honest writing leads to discussion and gets readers considering the words they use, how they refer to others and the difference it makes. They may or may not agree with the author, but I’m sure she’ll have them thinking.

As with The Reader, I thought this one was much tighter at the end. Oh, these series! They have to hook us don’t they? And this one does.

Sunday Morning Reads

Twas a beautiful morning to be in the garden. I picked my first to red tomatoes, brought home a luscious handful of kale to bake into chips this evening and a fragrant bouquet of

dill

Dill blossoms

basil for pesto. I love pulling weeds, it’s so cathartic! And although I like looking around on a Sunday seeing early morning gardeners, typically women alone or in pairs working their little plot of land, I really like days like today when I’m the only one there. My thoughts are uninterrupted as I consider all the ways gardening serves as a metaphor, perhaps even an allegory, for life. I really liked being in the garden today because my plants are finally growing. I’ve put up a fence that successfully keeps the pesky varmits out.

The varmits, aka rabbits, were eating everything as quickly as I was planting it. Given the number of projects, conferences and presentations I had in the spring, I just didn’t have time to plant and re-plant so I was quite annoyed with the pests. Nancy Tolson’s suggestion of “Kill the Wabbit” by Elmer Fudd echoed in my head and I posted on the garden’s Facebook page about the surge in sales of rabbit meat. I gave up thoughts of my mother and grandmother,

kale

Kale

those who put soil in my blood, and channeled my grandfather, the hunter who brought us ‘coon, pheasant and yes, rabbit for Thanksgiving meals. It was clearly a matter of me versus them. I wait all year for my own, delicious, organic produce that I can stand right there in the garden and munch on and that I am able to freeze or can and enjoy over the winter.I decided to build a fence.

 

 

Problem solved.

Well, maybe not.

I get a text from my son saying he wants to talk. Essentially, he wanted to remind me that the rabbits (We’re talking plural now because those rascals multiply like, well rabbits. One could easily multiply into 100 by the end of the season.) were there first. He didn’t go so

fence

The Fence

far as to say I was invading their home, but he did suggest that the fence was perhaps not the best way to handle this.

Huh?? If the rabbits simply found some other sucker’s unprotected plot then, well, I’d protected my food source. Right?

The problem is my word this year is HARMONY. That fence creates disharmony, particularly because it sends the varmits to my neighbors plot and essentially because this is the rabbits home.

As I spoke to my son, I realized my approach with the garden was to build this barrier that protects my space and says ‘oh, well’ to all others, both rabbits and other gardeners. I realized this is my general modus operandi: to build barriers for protection, security or isolation. It’s just more visible with this rabbit proof fence.

I realized my best solution had to create harmony and while this sometimes might be a balance, it isn’t always that. Harmony isn’t always a win-win but it is about me realizing how small and insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things, that love needs to win every time. It’s finding my god in every movement, every decision and every thought.

Even with the daggone rabbits.

As near as I can figure, the best solution would be to overplant to feed the rabbits. Once my plants get beyond a certain size, the picky little varmits won’t eat them, and of course they don’t eat all vegetables, so I would have a fighting chance of growing produce in the garden. But, the fence is up. I installed it all by myself and if you’ve ever worked with chicken wire, you have to appreciate the work it took to unroll that fencing particularly as the roll got smaller and the fencing got tighter. See how I’m justifying by centering my own needs here? Disharmony.

I think disharmony bites you in the ass every time.

The thing with fences (besides the fact that they don’t make good neighbors) is that they become the perfect barrier to catch seeds. So, right there where that chicken wire meets

sweet potato

a volunteer sweet potato in the midst of my black-eyed peas.

the ground is where Johnson grass, binder weed and dandelions dig in and grow up, almost as if they know how difficult they’d be to pull. This borderland is so metaphoric, isn’t it? (I think the weeds are, too.) It could be a space for beautiful harmony but fencing that creates a border exists as a clearly defined separation. The border fence only works for the power that installed it.

“Harmony” sounded like such and easy, gently word but it is truly a struggle for me this year and I guess that’s a good thing. No struggle, no friction: no growth.

Oh, these rabbits!

review: The Reader

+-+098926394_140title: The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold series)
author: Traci Chee
date: G. P. Putnam and Sons; September 2016
main character: Sefia
YA speculative fiction

 

Nin had taken care of Sefia everyday since her parents were killed but when Nin is attacked and kidnapped, there seems to be nothing Sefia can do. As Nin is dragged away, Sefia resolves to save her.

Just weeks prior to this, Lon is recruited by Erastis to join what he describes as a society of readers.

As these stories eventually intersect, we learn what it means to be a reader, not only of The Book, but of people, the sea and the land. I enjoyed the story’s complex portrayal of literacy as well as the emphasis placed on the value of the written word. Of course, it would be important to characters in such a book that they leave their mark and be remember.

The Reader is Traci Chee’s YA debut. Chee is an Asian American author, a self described geek and a resident of California. There were no doubt some shortcomings in the story’s architecture, but the last chapters were razor sharp and focused, leaving me primed for the next installment in this series. Chee deftly let the world of Kelanna unfold and present itself with just enough suspense to keep us wondering but not enough to make readers feel confused about this unknown place.

Sefia, the book’s protagonist is set on saving Nin.  She eventually teams up with a young man who does not speak and she names him Archer. Not often do we see young men who are rendered invisible in this way. Archer proves to be quite a worthy companion. While Sefia proves capable of saving herself, there are battles that surround her and she’s left cradling someone’s head or engaging in other benign acts that keep her out of the action.

As Sefia’s story begins to intersect with Lon’s we meet Assassins, Master Librarians, Captains, sailors and others without really getting an understanding of their hierarchy in this society. Some are kidnapped and forced into what they do, but we don’t really know how people get access to their position. Characters have a variety of skin colors and neither this nor gender seems to affect one’s social ranking. Neither material wealth nor poverty seem to exist. Most people seem to earn a living through some sort of skill or craft.

It seems Sefia has been prepared for this journey for many years. She’s reading the signs, trying to figure out who to trust and trying to save the woman who saved her. It’s a pretty interesting book!

[This review is based upon an advanced copy.]

Can You Hear Us Now?

As a teenager of the 70s, I really enjoyed buttons and bumper stickers and posters. I was attracted to cute, clever posters such one with a quote that read something like “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no one because I am the baddest (ass??) in this valley”. I cut out the image of the poster and placed it in the back of one of my notebooks. When one of my friends saw it, she gave me this weird, blank, stunned look but said nothing. Her response surprised me, and I really didn’t understand it until a few years later when I read the real quote in the Bible and realized I should “fear no evil because Thou art with me”. What can I say? I grew up Catholic and Catholics did not read the Bible. To this day, I do not understand why my Pentecostal friend never bothered to enlighten me. I imagine her still praying for my misguided soul.

Speaking up makes a difference. It seems easier with strangers and with true friends, but not so much with acquaintances, work friends or associates with whom we have rather tenuous relationships. I think it seems easier after 5o, too. After 50 we know ourselves and have confidence in our convictions, a confidence similar to what we have with those we know best. With strangers, we think we have little to lose.

Speaking up about When We Was Fierce required absolutely no forethought or discussion between any of us who have recently written about this issue. We did it on the heels of discussion regarding Lane Smith’s There is a Tribe of Kids and we did it not knowing what the backlash might be. We did it because we have to. Who else would have done it?

So many have openly discussed their initial love (yes, love) of the book and eagerness to share it with their students until they were walked through some the flaws. Speaking up changes minds. I hope conversations have continued among those who select and promote books on how they’ll read a book in the feature as well as how they’ll read book reviews. I hope the conversation continues.

This is very much a process. I know if anyone took the time to scour through this blog, they could find several reviews I’ve written that are just wrong. People of color and Native Americans are on this journey as much as white people are. Living on the butt end of white supremacy tends to make us a bit more aware of how things play out and makes us want to understand the nature of, deconstruct, name and create mechanisms to overcome it. But, not all people of color are at the same point on this learning curve, no more so than all whites. Most of us have had to learn quicker for our survival. It’s weary wearing the yokes of colonialism and it’s frightful to daily proclaim our humanity, to have to state that black lives matter. Should we have to be the ones expected to speak out every time? Oh, we will but we get sick. and. tired.

My call for more diverse books has always been to get more books published by authors of color and yet I know there are many interpretations of what other people want in terms of diversifying children’s literature.

The call came out for more diverse books and white authors asked ‘how can I write diverse characters’ when they should have asked how can I support authors of color. Native Americans and people of color are not always heard when we speak out on issues; speaking out doesn’t always work when your voice is marginalized. And, we don’t always have access to the networks that get us in the door.

It seems publishers want to have heard that we simply want more books with characters of color and they’re disregarding any sense of integrity in how they portray diversity, in the authenticity of these characters. Books now being called to question include Cloudwish by Fiona Wood and Truman and Nell by Greg Neri. I know there are others. Please, speak up!

Several have asked me what I expect from the publisher. None have asked what to expect from the author and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she maintains so little web presence? Or, perhaps because she’s with Candlewick, a publisher known for nurturing their talent. No, I don’t expect them to stop the release of the book, but I will not be disappointed if they prove me wrong. I’d like to see them enter this open and honest conversation and simply admit they published a book that was offensively racist and they’re also learning. I’d like to see them make a firm commitment, a specific commitment to diversify their staff, from adding people of color to staff diversity training similar to what Lee & Low did in 2015. And, I’d like to see them work with librarians or educators to develop curriculum material that uses this book as a tool to help young readers to identify stereotypes. One print of the book would be enough! We all have our fantasies.

Publishers have direct access to our children through what they print. I believe that in knowing this, they’ve held whiteness as something very precious. The new majority will no longer accept the status quo. We speak up with our voices and with our dollars. While it seems things are slow to change, in the 21st century, we can speak up. And when we do, our true friends are with us and some of those strangers come on board, too.

Additional posts relating to When We Was Fierce include:

Zetta Elliott Black Voices Matter “There’s the actual annihilation of Black bodies that’s reported on the nightly news, and then there’s the symbolic annihilation where White editors and agents show preference for non-Black writers and their narratives that distort our image/voice.”

Ibi Zoboi The Rocky Unpaved Roads of Good Intentions “There is a self-perceived burden of doing something, making it right, and fixing things for the Other—that this Other cannot help themselves, even if this help comes from members of their own community.”

Laura Pohl Bad Representation is Bad Writing: “When someone calls you out on bad representation, it means you’re a bad writer because you HAVEN’T DONE ENOUGH RESEARCH.”

Pernille Ripp Review: When We Was Fierce: “And I have been ashamed.  Ashamed at my own idiocy.  Ashamed at how little I know.  Ashamed at how quickly I bought into the same tragic story as a way to make my students think, where instead I should be looking for stories that combat this one-track narrative.”

 

 

review: When We Was Fierce

9780763679378-1-689x1024Title: When We Was Fierce
Author: e. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Date: Candlewick; August 2016
Main Character: Theodore “T” Clark
young adult fiction

 

Edited 26 July 2016

This review is part of a collaborative effort that began on Sunday 24 July with a guest review from Jenn Baker. 

It continued on Reading While White Blog with a post, “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews”,  by K. T. Horning.

If you are a parent who uses professional book reviews to select books, K.T.’s Keynote Lecture that is part of School Library Journal’s Diversity Course is a must.

(NOTE: All references to text are from an advanced copy.)

Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage…It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled—exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.
Jacques Lacan, “The line and light, Of the Gaze

When We Was Fierce has been a much anticipated book from e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. While writing the book she delivered many oral readings from this novel in verse, building excitement for its release. It was met with positive reviews from Teenreads, Kirkus (starred), Booklist (starred), Publishers Weekly (starred) and Library Journal.

When We Was Fierce is the story of Theodore, aka T, a young African American teen who is struggling with the choices in his life. He chooses to try to help Ricky-Ricky, a young boy from the neighborhood who has a developmental disability and is beaten to death.  Crossing the territorial line to help this boy puts T in the crosshairs of the leader of the gang that dominates the community, the Jive. T is somewhat of a pariah among his friends, not wanting to join a gang, spending time reading books and wanting to cross the line to help Ricky-Ricky. Because of the danger he put himself in by helping Ricky-Ricky, most seem to think T needs to leave in order to make something of himself.  Indeed, he seems to have choices to make.

Every major reviewer who embraced this book was impressed by the language Charlton-Trujillo made up for the contemporary characters in the book. The author states

“Right from the jump, I could hear the music of T’s world that hadn’t existed in YA before. Slang can become dated quick, so I had a unique opportunity to incorporate some slang along with a new vernacular.” source http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=8227716&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

It was this same made up language that made the book so problematic for me. Who makes up language when portraying real people living in a contemporary society? Just how entitled is that?

This same language that mimicked black vernacular made the story a problematic read for me. Typically, when I read black vernacular, I can hear it in my head as spoken by someone in my life and it resonates as a home to me. It is a language with a pattern in how nouns and verbs relate, tense is express and how verbs are conjugated. The language in this book jolted me, caused me to pause, re-read and wonder what meaning was being conveyed. The slang of contemporary African American teens evolves from and relates very much to phrases that were used back in my day and I can understand exactly what thoughts the characters are communicating. Not so much with this made up language. And, that leads me to wonder for whom this books is written.

When reading books from Latinx authors, we’ve come to understand there will be no definition in text and no glossary at the end of the book because it is written for Latinx readers. The authors do not want to ruin the reader’s experience for Latinxs by provided definitions for others. But Charlton-Trujillo provides neither definition nor context clues for the vocabulary she’s created. Struggling readers aren’t going to spend time figuring out this language that is not their own. For whom is this book written? Who is meant to understand? I do not believe it’s meant for African American teens. Perhaps it was written for the reviewers who so eagerly embraced the book and its language.

As you will find from this review, this is a fault filled novel. I intended to simply walk you through the first chapter of the book, look at the issues in those few pages that have prevent most people I know from continuing to read the book, but there are deeper issues throughout.

As previously mentioned, the book begins with the brutal beating of Ricky Ricky, a young man with disabilities, including stuttering. Charlton-Trujillo uses this character and his disabilities to quickly create a character, build empathy for him and then destroy him. His disability allows him to be easily victimized.

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo presents a monolithic urban African American neighborhood where everyone is low income and everyone is broken or damaged. Single homes, abusive parents, criminal records combine with neighbors who have little more than bad history between them. Money Mike, the leader of the Jive and the person who beat Ricky Ricky, is actually T’s brother. This relationship is explored only enough to let us know that there is bad history between the two brothers. While this relationship could have been developed to bring some depth to the story, it is not. These histories depict a violent and toxic community. But, to save the day we have Smokey, the story’s Magical Negro.

Smokey is a war veteran who has killed so many people in Iraq that he cannot stand the thought of more killing at home, in his own community. He’s the ultra cool, mack daddy that everyone respects. Smokey is the only one who sees the brilliant goodness in T, his ability to overcome the horrors of The Split, move out and actually make something of himself because, from the book’s perspective, there is nothing but violence and violent people in The Split.

Charlton-Trujillo says she wrote the book in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting. I think I expected a different response to Trayvon in a book written for teens. Here, she clearly defines the Split, the black community, as dysfunctional and completely responsible for its own problems.

Smokey takes T to a “speak out” in the local church where community members come together to decide what to do about the murder of Ricky Ricky. (Why do churches always appear in African American movies and in this book? Can you say stereotype?) The first person narrative voice of T states it was “jammed up packed in there”. My brain read ‘jam packed up in there.’ Before speaking, T recounts being counseled by his deceased father that the “po-lice” were not bad yet, none of the adults in the church care for the Pigs. (I’m not sure why she chose to capitalize that.) Smokey empowers T to speak his truth to the church crowd and their combined message is “violence is not our answer.” But, an old man, Charley, (an odd name for Black Man) responds with “we gotta take back what’s ours”. (p. 104) The adults in the church embrace the violence and detest the Pigs.

So, how does this relate to the murder of the Trayvon Martin? Is it that the black community is so violent that the ‘po-lice must act accordingly? That they’re justified in reacting violently to young black men?

While Smokey is the Magical Negro, women in the story fit the Jezebel stereotype.

The Jezebel images which defame African women may be viewed in two broad categories: pathetic others and exotic others. Pathetic others include those depictions of African women as physically unattractive, unintelligent, and uncivilized. These images suggest that African women in particular and black women in general possess aberrant physical, social, and cultural traits. source: http://ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm

She is oversexed, loud, often pregnant, unintelligent and unattractive.

She is

  • “the natural disaster know as Hilda A. Clark stood in a doorway, ready to go ten rounds in a six-round fight.” T’s mother. (p. 34)
  • Monica, T’s sister. “Her belly swole up tight and somebody else’s baby big-bouncing at her hip.” (p. 50) “Your sister is better beast” say Catch. (p106)
  • a female patient in the hospital. Delusional? In pain? “Then this woman swallow up all the quiet. She go to S C R E A M I N G in the room across the way. You think she seen her own death comin’ the way she go on. She was fierce in her sound.” (p. 50)
  • Tish steppin’ up to the guys. “She roll em breasts a li’l too open to be up in church. Might blind the holy right out every brother in the room with ‘em.” (p. 107)
  • Gabi, Jimmy’s girl who he hasn’t seen in a while, but he runs into her at the club. “She do a step-back showcasing all her curves. Jimmy smile go wide. I ain’t mad at it.” he say. “You ain’t … she say, and fo’ real, drop tongue all up in Jimmy and grab his Man. Damn@ She got no limit.” (p. 134)

Most female characters are developed little beyond their introductions but we find out just a little more about Nia, the girl who catches T’s eye.

“That what you into?” I ask. “Brothers with guns?

She tease the lip of that can with her finger

“I don’t step anywhere with a brother that carry heat,” she say. “It ain’t my cool. Ever.”

“Me neither,” I say. “I mean heat. Not brothers.”

She bust out smile.

It put my stomach to twitching.

“Where is you I say. I mean, you from Atlanta? That’s what Gabs was sayin’.

“Yeah. My mom and I came to share time for the Fourth.”

“Fo’ real?” I ask.

“Yeah…?” she say.

“Look I’m sorry. It’s just… you come all the way from Atlanta to visit West Split? That’s just — we in the hood. You on that, right?” (p 149)

As Nia weaves her intoxicating, alluring and sexy spell over T by simply circling the top of her soda can with her finger, we realize how naïve and unworldly our young protag is in having never travelled outside his own confines. We also realize his disdain for this place. Why would Nia, this lust-filled goddess visit this, his neighborhood? And here, e. E. Charlton-Trujillo levels condemnation on this space that so many African Americans call home. Outsiders writing about a community often do this, not seeing beyond the broken beer bottles (p, 6), casually commenting that it’s not “something fresh to see a kid busted up” (p. 10) rather than seeing through to the ebb and flow of life that make the city blocks a vibrant community.

Here in The Split, there is no code switching. African Americans in The Split speak the same broken vernacular whether a child is speaking to a parent, police officer or peer. T’s mother walks into her son’s hospital room and finds a police officer there.

“You been questioning my boy?” she ask.
I was here when he woke up, Ms. Clark.”

“Mrs. And don’t play me the fool with your with eyes, Mr. Kelly,” she say. “You can sniff somewhere else.” [These black women are such Jezabels!]

“Mrs. Clark—“

“Let me clear the noise for you, sir. My son nearly lost his life today. And whatever questions you have can wait till he up and pee without a tube in his man business.” (p.36)

This inability to switch indicates a lack of sophistication among her characters, an unwillingness to draw a line that defines the other and holds them as outsiders. Yet, in the language Charlton-Trujillo creates, there is a distancing created between the characters and the reader. Her language provides indirect action.

  • p 62 “Man, my pain ached!”
  • p 64 “You need to get real fact, Theo,” Hilda snapped. Read on the paper.”
  • 76 “he just keepin’ me to the know. That’s all.”
  • 19 “Money Mike hated on me for not enlisting.”

As if creating the language is not offensive enough, we have to deal with the use of ‘slave’ and ‘nigga’. Figure this out.

“Shit beast!” Jimmy was raw at Catch!

“What the fuck, Negro?”

“Don’t talk slaves to me,

“Stay out between this, smalls,” warned Catch. (p. 7)

Slaves? Negro? What the what??

Charlton-Trujillo’s voice comes through (p.116) when she breaks into her tirade on ‘nigga’. Although many of us who are not young African Americans do not embrace usage of this term, we know and understand why young people incorporate ‘nigga’ into their vernacular. Their vernacular. This highlights the transgression committed in the writing, publishing and editing of this book about which Charlton-Trujillo proclaims “I had to write this story now. Kids needed it. The Fierce wouldn’t let me go.”

Whose voice? Whose language? For whom is this book featuring African American characters and mimicking black language, black culture, black youth and black community written?

 

 

 

guest review: When We Was Fierce

9780763679378-1-689x1024.jpgTitle: When We Was Fierce
Author: e. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Date: Candlewick; August 2016
Main Character: Theodore “T” Clark
young adult fiction

There have been undercurrents for the past few months reacting to the forthcoming When We Was Fierce written by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo (Candlewick). Charlton-Trujillo’s previous novels include  Feels Like Home (Random House/Delacorte), Prizefighter En Mi Casa (Random House/Delacorte) and Fat Angie (Candlewick Press; ALA Stonewall Award Winner). Charlton-Trujillo is known for her realistic fiction that presents struggling, marginalized characters. Of late, she’s grown a reputation for traveling the country working with urban teens to teach them how to express their voices in writing. She’s also created a documentary film, “At Risk Summer”.

While many, too many, reviewers have praised When We Was Fierce for its language, many are finding the story—particularly its language—as a problematic portrayal of the African American community. During an email exchange with Jenn Baker regarding the book, I asked if she would be able to write a review for this blog. She agreed and her work follows.

This books raises many concerns regarding how African Americans are still being portrayed in children’s literature, how language, an expression of a culture’s perceptions and of its power, is stripped bare and reconstituted according to the author’s whim. This is an egregious act to perpetrate upon an existing culture in a contemporary society. Yet, it has been done and it has been praised.

Let’s spend the next few days, or however long it takes,  exploring this book and how it’s being seen by members of the African American community. Let’s collectively consider the power of language, the representation of age old stereotypes and the dynamics that accurately reflect the African American community because African American lives do matter and while we do all agree that we need more diverse books, we need to be wise enough to understand we need quality over quantity, we need accuracy over mockery. Otherwise, we’ll continue to marginalize African Americans, and this same concept holds true for all people of color, those in the LGBTQIA community, Native Americans and those with disabilities.

Jenn’s review is here today. There will be another review posted tomorrow, and several coordinating pieces on Reading While White. We hope to maintain a dialog that will explore issues presented through this book and to collectively move us forward.

Thank you Jenn, for making the time to write a review that considers and explores much of what makes this book problematic.

[note: all references are made to an advance copy of the book.]

When We Was Fierce (by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo) focuses on and is narrated in the Brokenest of Manifested English (examples to come) by T aka Theodore (or as I like to call him T-Bone). At the start of the book T-Bone is hanging with his friends Catch (or as I shall call him Catch Me If You Can, the resident hothead of the group), Yo-Yo (whom I like to refer to as Puddin’, the softie to Catch Me’s hard a**), and Jimmy (aka Hoop Dreams, who also has a “grimy” girlfriend or so the narrator pigeonholes her for the reader). The group watches as Ricky-Ricky (I call him Pretty Ricky, the resident lackey with a stutter we’re to feel sympathy for) attempts to talk to a rival gang thereby getting jumped. This sets off an unsavory chain of events leading to more jumping, people like T-Bone being marked, and others getting “flat-fixed” (aka murdered). Not only that but Pretty Ricky’s beat down ultimately escalates and incites a gang war. As it turns out, the head of the gang the Jives (aptly named considering the speech construction) and Pretty Ricky’s tormentor is T’s older brother, whom I imagine is parodying Tupac’s overzealous rabble-rouser in Juice. The rest of the book resorts to your usual tropes/stereotypes of what one assumes is a “gang banger” life for an all Black cast. We have the wise veteran; the impregnated teenage girl who aspires to more; the hardened yet fragile single mom working multiple jobs in the ‘hood; the abusive (albeit seemingly alcoholic father figure); multiple casualties; kids who are interested in basketball, DJing, graffiti; one-dimensional love interests strategically placed for being possible love interests; racist cops (aka “Pigs”); someone ending up in the penitentiary to make up for their sins; as well as a Come to Jesus moment and a quick Hail Mary save for the protagonist/narrator.

And let me not forget that there is also a scene with a literal whipping of a teen to the back (pp. 123-124). If Pinky (the abuser) is in fact a white man than this symbolism is not lost on me and further reflects the down and out, violent, and abusive history of Blacks When We Was Fierce leans on to show the “hard knock life” that is, apparently, so ingrained in Black culture that no one can escape it or has no choice but to accept this fate.

Narration/Structure
Beyond the overly clichéd characterizations my biggest issue with this text is the audacity in the constructed Ebonics. It’s not only inconsistent, it’s abhorrent without much understanding or even consideration for the structure of Ebonics (aka African American Vernacular English, AAVE). In this text the author goes beyond to present, as I said, the Brokenest of Manifested English to be perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as “real.” This narration strikes me as deeply offensive and extremely hard to read without having to re-read, not for interest but for comprehension.

Here are some examples of the Brokenest of Manifested English in When We Was Fierce. If you can decipher much of this, I salute you.

Brothers get beat down
fifty-nine times worse
and got their sneaks under
the kitchen table for meal same night. (p. 49)

Broad on the daylight (p. 67)

I was midspeak when I got an interrupt. (p. 73)

My think go to racing (p. 82)

So, you aren’t worried about Catch in speak with Nacho? (p. 129)

We just holdin’ time. (p. 129)

Don’t talk slaves to me. (p. 7)

Text like “speak” and “think” and “truth” are not used in a way that recognizes it’s tense and form in a sentence’s construction. When you read lines with “my speak, our speak, her speak” (not my speech, her speech, our words) and “my think” (I dunno why “My thoughts started racing” isn’t enough in this instance) are not cohesive in any way. I find it incredibly hard to believe that not only do the children/teens in this book speak this way all the time but so do the adults (notable exceptions are the cops).

Looking at slang such as “chill,” “woke,” and “I’m dead” they all have stirrings in textual cues that make their meaning evident. These terms adhere to the basics of American English grammar while adding a particular zest and definition to the urbanized vocabulary. The narration in Fierce shows a blatant disregard and lazy vocabulary creation that’s continually insulting in the hopes that it’s avant garde. This linguistic framework of butchery is new, the attempt to create new sounds is not.

Let’s look at other examples of speech in texts by Jason Reynolds and Mitchell S. Jackson from “down and out” Black protagonists that retains slang and doesn’t attempt to reinvent, or slur, the wheel. And thus sounds/feels/is more realistic and in line with AAVE giving a strong voice to the protagonist by not resorting to caricatures of perceived “uneducated” Black youths.

When I Was The Greatest
“You moused up, man!”
“Aight. Well, let’s start from the beginning. Why did they jump Needles? Last I checked, he was chilling in the corner, out of the way.” (p. 152)

The Residue Years
Homeboy’s all of five feet nothing—no lie, we’re talking centimeters off a certified dwarf. With hands no good for shooting pool or poker…” (p. 25)

Take my girl: She’s a good woman, one of the best I’ve been with…., but sometimes, no lie, I wish instead of always accusing me, always threatening me, instead of doing that, I wish sometimes she’d just leave.
Not threatens to bounce, but sashays right out of my life for good, those lustrous tresses waving good-bye, so long; have a cursed life. (p. 146)

See the difference?

In terms of structure, the attempt at a novel-in-verse is not cognizant of the format. Understandably these forms of narration are “hot” right now, but they’re “hot” because of the poise and control those who have used it applied to personal and not, here’s that word again, stereotypical stories (e.g., Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Margarita Engle most recently). When We Was Fierce would’ve been slightly better in straight prose.

Here’s an example of the disruptive break in this text in “verse.”
When We Was Fierce

Catch ain’t said one thing all the way over
from his place. We ain’t say nothing either.
Gotta respect a brother after a beatin’ like
that. (p. 126)

Here’s a section from Kwame Alexander’s Booked for comparison’s sake of how/when it works. (Keep in mind Booked is close 2nd person while Fierce is 1st person narration.):
The library door
swings open
just as you and Coby arrive.
The twins grit hard. (p. 41)

Also, there’s the attempts at dramatics at the end of every chapter in Fierce which, after a while for an almost 400 page tome, wears on you and relies too much on the heaviness to invoke feelings of concern from the reader:
I think Catch in edge. I
think we all was.
We just couldn’t know it yet.
Not in the way that would make me know to
r  u  n  . (p. 147)

Going back to Booked, Alexander uses this method of emphasis sparingly so it has more effect when it does show up:
     Shut up, she fires back,
and gives him a shove
that only makes him laugh more,
and makes you
WANNA. SHUT. HIM. UP. (p. 104)

Characterizations
When We Was Fierce is also hard to finish based on the affronting conventions and portrayals of Blacks in the ‘hood. As I mentioned in the plot summary, each character serves their purpose. In all honesty, this book made me think of a mash up of Juice and Boyz N’ the Hood based on the general premise, the quartet of boys, as well as the lives lost and the thinly rendered female characters. Hilda and Monica (T-Bone’s mother and sister, respectively) get the most screen time but don’t stretch beyond images we’ve seen before. Hilda being the new widow wanting to protect her children and Monica the honor student who “unfortunately” and “accidentally” got impregnated. Nia, the underutilized love interest and “urban” manic pixie dream girl, serves one purpose and one purpose only: to give T-Bone someone to talk to and admire beyond the sketchier ladies buzzing around that he judges harshly. For someone who says he likes to “feel up some girls” I lose sympathy and empathy for T-Bone and his crew with this permissive “boys will be boys” attitude towards young women.

We’re told so much more than we’re shown. No one really “gets out” of where they are and I have no inkling beyond a few convos of what people want is not to die on any given day. Now, that’s a suitable life goal, but this also adds to the bevy of texts we already of have books with perception of gang life, or urban life, of ‘hood life for African Americans in particular with little levity that also utilizes the worn-out interests of partying, sex, and power. The simplest things can be the strongest and Fierce misses the mark without allowing T-Bone to be anything but physically hurt or rage filled, but mostly he is an observer and descriptor in a language that pushes us as readers away rather than bringing us in to who he is and wants to be.

Here’s an example from When We Was Fierce of the protagonist’s attempt to woo Nia:
When we hit the door, I kick attention to Nia.
Smile out real large.
And know this: she didn’t give me much,
But I think she into my step. (p. 110)

Here’s an example from, you guessed it, Booked of the main character talking to his friend about how to approach the girl he likes:
Just for a minute. I don’t know what to say.
     Just talk about the weather or something.
That’s corny.
     Nick, it ain’t that deep. Talk about what you know.
Soccer?
     Yeah, talk to her about the Dallas Cup.
Good idea, but what if she thinks it’s boring?
     Then she’s crazy, in which case you don’t want her anymore. (p. 130)

What adds to the perception of the characters in this story being marionettes is the quick and not at all insightful references to Black Lives Matter and those lost. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray are brought up as a way to show anger by citizens and a distrust in the “po-lice” (author’s spelling, not mine). However, Fierce does not recognize that there’s always been a deeper distrust there and to throw out the names of these deceased without any real discussion/understanding on the long-standing issues between state and citizens is irresponsible and frankly dismissive of the larger problem of anti-Blackness. It feels like a carrot dangled to make the characters seem more real but for those of us living this life and this fear in real time it’s another flippant element in a text rife with insult and lack of awareness.

This review is already longer than I’d like, yet I have so much more to say. I’ll leave it at this and with the note that, on a personal level, I was incredibly hurt by the depictions in this text, particularly the jive-ish, broken language. Having provided sensitivity reads where Black characters sounded like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind and then this in a kid’s books it makes me realize how much work there is to be done. And while I assume much trust was put into the author’s work because of her own marginalization as well as occasional work with Black teens, it doesn’t dismiss how off-the-mark this work is in scope and execution. And it doesn’t dismiss that throughout the whole creation and production process not one person recognized, or sought council/feedback potentially, from Black people to see how this would make members of this community feel. Thinking of the young reader demographic I’d like someone to sit back and consider work created by so many marginalized artists that seeks to show an alternative while also showing truth and tell me if you would actually feel comfortable showing When We Was Fierce to a group of Black children and saying ‘This is how I see you.’ How much do these reflections really say more about the state of publishing rather than the state of progress where the industry I work in continues to covet Black pain?

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, panel organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Poets & Writers magazine, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to Forbes.com and Bustle among other online publications. 

June Rights Reports

Abrams/Amulet has acquired debut author Riley Redgate’s Seven Ways We Lie, told from the perspectives of seven teenagers – each seduced by one of the seven deadly sins – whose paths converge when they accidentally expose a life-altering secret. It’s scheduled for publication in spring 2016.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has preempted a chapter book series by Debbi Michiko Florence, about headstrong eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi and her Japanese-American family. The first book, Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, is about yearning to be part of a fun family tradition, even if it’s not something girls typically do. Publication begins in spring 2017.

Lee & Low’s Tu Books has bought world rights for Supriya Kelkar’s Ahimsa, a middle grade historical novel about a privileged 10-year-old girl in 1942 India whose mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, and who takes up her mother’s work for freedom when her mother is jailed. Publication is slated for fall 2018.

Simon Pulse has acquired Sarah Lang‘s (writing as Sarah Lyu) debut novel, True Romantics, at auction. The book follows 17-year-old Remy Strade, whose life changes when she meets Elise Song and the two form an intense bond. When their friendship is threatened, the girls find themselves in the middle of a harrowing tragedy. Publication is slated for summer 2018.

Simon & Schuster has bought rights to Always and Forever, Lara Jean, the conclusion to Jenny Han‘s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy. While Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping to plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. As her senior year draws to a close, she wonders – when your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to? It’s scheduled for April 2017.

Lee & Low’s Tu Books has bought world rights for New Visions Award honor recipient Alexandra Aceves‘s Children of the River Ghost, a YA horror novel in which 16-year-old Katie, reeling from bullying after her last relationship, moves to New Mexico and falls for a mysterious, beautiful girl who may be the ghost La Llorona. Publication is set for spring 2019.

Scholastic/Levine has bought Flood City, the first middle grade book by Daniel José Older, an SF novel about two boys named Max and Ato who team up to stop the destruction of the last urban outpost on a flooded Earth. It’s tentatively scheduled for 2018. Klein also signed up Shadowhouse Fall (scheduled for fall 2017) and an untitled third book, to continue the bestselling Shadowshaper series.

Simon Pulse has acquired The Stories We Told by Sandhya Menon, author of the forthcoming When Dimple Met Rishi. Her latest contemporary YA follows Kiran Mehra, an aspiring teen filmmaker who finds herself caught up in family, friendship, and romance drama, narrated through the letters she writes to her favorite female filmmakers. Publication is set for summer 2018.

Abrams/Amulet have acquired Ginger Ly‘s (l.)Suee and the Shadow, a middle-grade graphic novel illustrated by Molly Park, about a 12-year-old girl whose new school is quite strange: voices emanate from dark corners, bullied kids turn into zombie-like Zeroes, and Suee’s own shadow comes to chatty life with a secret hiding beneath her own feet. Publication is planned for fall 2017.