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

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:

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.

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)

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.
     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 and Bustle among other online publications. 

review: My Name is Not Friday


title: My Name is Not Friday
author: Jon Walter
date: Scholastic, 2016
main character: Samuel “Friday”
YA Historical Fiction

My Name is not Friday is British author Jon Walter’s sophomore novel. The beginning is slow moving and a bit disorienting. It feels odd in that we’re in one of the most racially charged eras in American history yet we never learn anyone’s racial identity until the protaganist is referred to as a ‘nigger’ at a slave auction thirty nine pages into the story. I have not seen the British version of this book, it is possible some things were changed as the book was translated into American English.

We soon find that young Samuel has been removed from the orphanage where he grew up and is being enslaved, leaving behind his younger brother, Joshua; his only remaining family member. Samuel feels responsible for his mischievous sibling (his brother’s keeper?) and wants to get back to protect him. Instead, he’s held in bondage on the Allen farm.

I still cannot figure out why Samuel (look up Samuel in the Old Testament), who is renamed Friday (nod to Robinson Crusoe) doesn’t make everyone know that he is free. He enters into bondage fearlessly. Why?

It seems that Samuel falls easily into the role of one who is enslaved, keeping his eyes downcast, not engaging with the whites around him. His life in the orphanage seemed good, not great but good. Perhaps life there as a free boy was not much better than being enslaved. Was there just no good place for a black boy to be in the American south in 1880? Perhaps he was subjugated all his life. Several scenes indicate that Friday does not know how to carry out routine duties of an enslaved person and has no idea how to be a slave. Rather than wonder why he doesn’t know, it’s assumed he’s lazy. However, many see Friday as someone quite special, almost chosen. This is part of the strong moral and Christian undertone in the book.

Friday’s actual owner is Gerald Allen, a young white boy not much older than Friday. Mrs. Allen, Gerald’s mother, manages the estate while her husband is off to fight for the Confederacy and  she seems unsure most of the time. Having been influence by a father who is compassionate toward those he has enslaved, Gerald wants to be Friday’s friend although his mother wants him to grow up and treat Friday as someone who is enslaved.

I’ve read several reviews of My Name is Not Friday that refer to the story as being brutal. Please rid yourself of the notion of smiling slaves. Please. My friends, this is a story of enslavement, a story where one group of humans forces domination over another based upon their skin color. Walter understands this and does not shy away from the inhumanity of this institution. He communicates the humanity of the enslaved as well as of the enslaver and the most honest way he can do this is by creating opportunities to show the inconsistencies of this system, the exact inhumanity of enslavement.

Remember, Gerald actually owns all the enslaved people on this property. At one point, he’s bullied into whipping an enslaved person, Hubbard. He doesn’t want to whip this man whom he’s known all his life and Friday calls him on it.

“Why’d you do It, Gerald? Why didn’t you stop it?”

Gerald stamps down, lifts another spade of earth up out of the grave, and throws it farther than he needs to. “Hubbard deserved what he got. He was caught fair and square and we didn’t have no choice but to whip him. My daddy would have done the same thing. I’m sure he would. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it himself, but he would have made sure someone did it.”

“You could have refused!”

“They’d have done it anyway!” He stops his digging and stares at me, exasperated. “There are folks who think that darkies ain’t good enough to be free. Now, I ain’t one of ‘em, but that’s who you got to convince-and you can’t do that when they’ve brought in a runaway and everyone’s howling for blood.”

The entitlement! Gerald throws the earth farther than he needs to; a wasteful action, a waste of the soil. Digging in the dirt.

Gerald rationalizes that because of his actions, Hubbard deserves to be whipped and it’s Hubbard’s own fault and besides you can’t convince some people otherwise, at least not when they’re angry. And, his daddy? He wouldn’t have whipped Hubbard, he wouldn’t soil his own hands like that. No. He’d get someone else to do it. These enslaved people are Gerald’s property but everything tells him he has no choice to make. It’s 1864ish and the war is almost over but the south has become a slave society. Not even whites have the freedom to act outside the guidelines. Yea, that’s brutal.

Walter does have a few problems with the story. With so much richness brought to the character of Friday/Samuel, he’s still poorly developed. At many points, Samuel seems to be a moral compass, a child with a mission. Yet, he never seems to develop in any cognitive, emotional or spiritual perspective. With all that Friday faces over a protracted period of time, he seems to remain the same child from start to finish. And, too often racial identity is omitted.

Then, there’s the ending. The third segment of the book is written in a completely different tone and even at a different pace than the previous portion and this makes the conclusion difficult to accept.

Walter admits that he didn’t set out to write a story about enslavement, but this is where the character’s voice let him. I like that he didn’t hold his character an arm’s length away as too many whites do when writing enslaved blacks. Rather, he embraces him and writes him with care. I like that his portrayal of enslavement is complex and multilayered and that Walter did his research. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is a good one.

book review: See No Color

+-+132197954_140title: See No Color
author: Shannon Gibney
date: 2015 CarolRhoda Lab
main character: Alex Kirtridge

See No Color is a coming of age story about a young biracial girl (White/African American), a transracial adoptee, who is trying to figure out her identity. Alex is a gifted athlete with hopes of building a career in baseball. When the story begins, Alex is narrating her father’s life. This is off-putting in YA, where we typically hear little from or about parents. In this instance, Gibney is using Alex’s voice to indicate how little self-confidence the character has. Alex’s hair also brings this point across. Her hair is wild and untamed. I would imagine it to be long, curly and very dry; tough to comb and impossible to style. Alex has been adopted by a white family who denies Alex’s racial identity and their blindness leads Alex to wonder just who she really is, and how to manage her hair. When she begins to date a young man who is African American, she begins to realize that she doesn’t relate to her own blackness. Where does she fit in?

When I finished reading the book, it didn’t sit well with me and I believe this is simply because I didn’t take the time to relate to the character. There are many things that Alex does as she stumbles through her search for identity that come across as signs of weakness. Well, of course this young girl was weak in some sense, but in another sense she was had the strength to undertake this journey by herself. I’ve come to admire her strength.

I enjoyed the language in this book.

I touched the base and then took a reasonable lead as my teammate stepped up to the plate. The black kid on the mound looked back at me once, over his glove, but I was confident that he wouldn’t try to pick me off. He knew exactly how fast I was now. Today, anyway, I was stronger that he was. (p. 10)

No doubt Alex that wasn’t only talking about baseball. Here, she was foreshadowing the doubt and confusion that would soon overtake her.

The key to Alex discovering who she is lies in how she manages her relationships with the young African American man she’s dating and with her African American father. While this book wants to empower this young women, it fails to do so in two instances. First, it lets her development rest upon relationships with males. Second, the story has her physical ability decline as her body to develops. I wasn’t an athlete, so I don’t know that my rounding hips would prevent me from running at high speeds and I tend to thing that Venus and Serena Williams tend to disprove this logic.

I’d be remiss in my duties as a librarian if I didn’t remark on how well written the scene is when the librarian relates an abundance of information about transracial adoptions. Rather than hearing the voice of the author as often happens in thee moments, I felt the librarian’s passion and emotion. This debut author did a very skillful job of creating a complex and believable story.

See No Color is a rare gem in that little else is written for teens about transracial adoptions, biracial teens or female athletes. Here, in this book it all intersects quite nicely.

Book Review: The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan

cover50965-mediumTitle: The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan

Author: Atia Abawi

Date: Penguin; 2014

main character: Fatima


synopsis: Fatima is a Hazara girl, raised to be obedient and dutiful. Samiullah is a Pashtun boy raised to defend the traditions of his tribe. They were not meant to fall in love. But they do. And the story that follows shows both the beauty and the violence in current-day Afghanistan as Fatima and Samiullah fight their families, their cultures and the Taliban to stay together. Based on the people Atia Abawi met and the events she covered during her nearly five years in Afghanistan, this stunning novel is a must-read for anyone who has lived during America’s War in Afghanistan.

I have to admit that the beginning of the book felt very much to me like it was written by an outsider looking in; someone who was taking the American notion of romantic love to another country. Abawi was simply pulling my American sensibility into Afghanistan. The story felt soft and sweet, didn’t I know how this was going to end? Then, Fatima over hears her father talking to her mother about war-time atrocities that he committed. This was not going to be an easy read! I had not idea how it was going to end, but I certainly wanted to know!

Abawi writes a story of contemporary Afghanstan, a country caught in crossroads and cross hairs. Abawi writes chapters in alternating voices, disallowing us from conceptualizing a single story for this perplexing country. Abawi develops complex characters that we despise for their actions, yet we know the conflicted rationale that leads them to behave a certain way.

I don’t know the various cultures in Afghanistan, don’t know the rituals of daily life or the nuances of religion and politics. I cannot review the accuracy in that regard. What I do appreciate is that we’re told a story that incorporates multiple perspectives so that readers will not expect those who live in the country to think, behave or live in one certain way. Not many writers would be able to trust their characters to tell this story, but Abawi did. Readers will develop their own judgments about compelling situations, They will approach the book with ideas about social justice, marriage, love and parental rights, yet as Fatima comes of age, the reader will certainly mature along with her. This book is a tough read; I think an important read for teens in our global society. It brings to life the fact that there are no easy answers.

Atia Abawi works as a journalist with CNN. She was stationed in Afghanistan for over 5 years, leaving that position for one in Jerusalem. Abawi was born in Germany and moved to the US when she was one year old. She is still based in the Mideast and The Secret Sky is her first book.


book review: The Great Greene Heist

TheGreatGreeneHeisttitle: The Great Greene Heist

author: Varian Johnson

date: Arthur A. Levine; May 2014

main character: Jackson Green

middle grade fiction

Intriguing! Has Jackson Greene changed? And, just how bad was he that he needed to change? Will Jackson get the girl? Will the girl get the guy? Will Gabriela win the election?

The cast of characters for this middle grade caper includes Victor Cho, Bradley Boardman, Megan Feldman and Charlie de la Cruz and their talents range the spectrum from inventing high-tech inventions to environmental advocacy. These middle grade students put it all on the line to save their friends and the student council election for their school. What could be more important to middle grade students?

I found the 3rd person voice in this book so refreshing and accomplished in a manner that few other than Varian Johnson can do. The story Johnson tells is as much Gaby’s as it is Jackson’s. I think he successfully nailed the voice of his characters, who were quite well-developed. The guys sound like guys and the girls sound like girls.

And, then there’s Principal Kelsey who manages to rest firmly on the marker for ‘stereotypical character’ on the Scale of Character Development for Children and Young Adult Books. With so much going on in the story, using him as a stock character allows the story to move at it’s quick pace. How stock is he? This guy is so self-involved that he doesn’t take any effort to get to know his students. He confuses his Asian students with one another as easily as he confuses Latino students. The students are so different from one another, readers wonder how he could do that.

Embedding elements from Oceans 11, Westing Game, Sneakers, Thomas Crown Affair and Star Trek 3: Wrath of Khan in this book, Johnson appeals to the mischievous intellect of this daring age group. Jackson is one of the best-developed MG male characters I’ve read in a long time. While his character relate more to reader’s creative side, his escapades relate to why we read in the first place: for sheer enjoyment.

themes: Elections; friendship; technology; reliability; integrity


book review: The Deep

Cover_v8.inddtitle: The Deep

author: Zetta Elliott

date: 2013; Rosetta Press

main character: Nyla

The Deep continues the stories of Nyla, Keem and D that began in Ship of Souls. While Ship of Souls was D’s story, The Deep is Nyla’s. We knew something happened to Nyla in Germany and now we find what it was and how that terror stole Nyla’s sense of self. She moves to Brooklyn with her stepmother and begins covering herself in an array of body piercings, spiked hair and black clothing. In appearance, she is oddly matched with Keem, an attractive athlete, but he seemed to give her the space and respect that she needed. She is as impulsive in her decision-making as any 14-year-old would be.

As a character, I found Nyla difficult to like just as I imagine a real life Nyla would be. A smart black girl struggling with so many personal issues, would indeed take some special love if you didn’t know her. This girl managed to build a thick, protective covering around herself that didn’t manage to interfere with her sense of independence or her core values.

Before leaving for Brooklyn, Nyla rhetorically asks if she could indeed belong in Brooklyn. Identity and fitting in are themes in this book and they’re themes that shape the lives of many nerdy black girls who rarely find themselves represented in American media. Nyla finds that she has a special purpose, a unique calling that comes from her mother; the woman who walked out on her and her father when she was 4 years old.

Elliott creates a strong sense of place as the Brooklyn landscape plays a prominent role in Nyla’s fate. Prominent public locations become portals that transport Nyla into the deep and deliver important messages to the characters. As D, Keem and Nyla ride the trains, visit the pizza shops and hangout out in the parks we feel such a strong connection to this place that we want to believe this is where they all belong. But our Nyla is being pulled away.

These three friends are once again confronted by powers from below the ground that  bring many threats, not the least of which is the threat to end their friendships. Nyla struggles with her new-found powers and with so many major elements in the book, yet Elliott lets these teens remain teens. Each of them wants to know how to maintain  relationships with parents, friends and lovers. And, each of them wants to find their place in the world. Well, D and Nyla do. We still need to hear Keem’s story!

Elliott continues to self publish imaginative and provocative young adult speculative fiction. Her commitment to her readers is evident in the honest portrayals that she gives them. Zetta sent me a copy of this book back in December when I was knee deep in BFYA reading. I never committed to when I would read The Deep and honestly, I didn’t want to read it because I didn’t want to not like it. I shouldn’t have doubted her skills.