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Black Readers Matter: Review of The Hate U Give

Some books don’t need an introduction, an engrossing connection to “my life” as a reader/blogger and what I’ve been doing with it. The Hate U Give is one of those books.

(very mild spoilers ahead)

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Written by first-time novelist Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give opens with protagonist Starr Carter at a party in her Garden Heights neighborhood. What begins as your average high school party quickly devolves into the worst situation imaginable: Starr screaming in a car as she watches a police officer shoot her childhood friend Khalil three times in the chest. Khalil dies of his wounds, and Starr and their community are left reeling. The rest of the novel follows Starr as she tries to grieve for and do justice by her friend and navigate a world that has just gotten a lot bigger.

Thomas started writing this story following the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, whose final day was chronicled in Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station. And while many writers, politicians, activists, and global citizens have written in response to and because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formally established four years later after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Thomas’s direct and powerful appeal to the black youth of this country sets her words apart from the rest.

Confronting Friends When They’re Being Offensive

Most of the young and older people I know, including myself, have little to no idea how to confront their friends about things that bother them. Most of us are not trained to have constructive and direct conversations with our peers, and we tend to hide behind our screens and rely on passivity to convey our frustrations, even if our frustrations are minor. So I was mesmerized and impressed when Starr, whose prep school friends have no idea that she was the witness to Khalil’s shooting, decides to assert herself and ask her white friend Hailey about her offensive behavior and language about people of color.

The resulting conversations are fraught and painful, but are so incredibly essential to the message of The Hate U Give: the only thing that will move this world forward is speaking up and out about injustice. Starr very easily could have ignored her friend and cut her toxicity out of her life altogether, but Angie Thomas instead creates a protagonist that chooses to reflect on her friendship and faces everything that is uncomfortable and painful head-on, which gives younger readers everywhere a character who is both relatable and inspiring.

Choosing Languages

Starr Carter belongs to two very different worlds in The Hate U Give. One is her neighborhood, Garden Heights, which encompasses the majority of her family and their predominantly African-American community. The other is her mostly-white, affluent prep school, where she fits in by suppressing any part of herself that makes her seem like a stereotypical black girl. For Starr, this means speaking one language in Garden Heights, and a completely different language at school. Starr says early in the novel “Slang makes them [her non-black classmates] cool. Slang makes [me] hood.” Starr “holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the angry black girl.”

As someone who grew up hearing and attempting to speak Bengali at home and switching to English at school, this internal rift created by language really resonated with me as a reader. There are some ideas, to this day, which I feel can only be expressed accurately with Bengali words, and I find myself stuttering to reorient my brain to explain myself in English. But while Starr’s struggle resonates with my bilingual brain, her conflict is much more rooted in racism and the way we as a country determine what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” for public consumption.

As a teacher who worked for primarily Hispanic and black kids, I can’t tell you how many times I was instructed or encouraged to make sure that they expressed themselves “professionally” at school. I learned quickly that “professional” didn’t just mean no cursing or demeaning language, it meant no cultural slang. I disregarded this for the most part, and stuck to ensuring that my students felt safe and comfortable being themselves in my classroom. While these instructions might sound well-intended, because of course we want students to be successful in school and in the real world, asking them to change the way they speak when their words aren’t harmful is just another way of ostracizing them.

Starr censors herself because she’s already not like most of the kids in her school, in terms of her race, cultural background, and financial means. But Angie Thomas is hitting on something here that is prevalent across the United States: we are telling kids, both through implicit and explicit messaging, who aren’t white that their language isn’t normal or acceptable, even when it’s still English. This is mind-boggling, because how can we expect students to actually attain success and feel that success when they’re not being themselves?

Non-Black People, This Book is Not FOR You (and That’s Okay)

They say that once you write a book, the work is no longer yours. It belongs to whoever is reading it, and those readers will shape what the book becomes in this world. I love The Hate U Give it for its humor, for its completely raw emotion, for its insights into a community that isn’t mine but is American. I love everything about this book, but it’s not mine. Angie Thomas didn’t write it for me. She didn’t write it for the mostly white publishing industry who gave it rave reviews. Angie Thomas wrote it to validate and uplift the black kids living in fear in America today.

Starr Carter tells us in the second chapter of the book that she had two big milestone conversations with her parents when she was twelve. One was about sex, and the other was about what you should do if a cop stops you. When I read this, I knew this book doesn’t belong to every reader, it belongs to black readers. My parents never had to sit me down and tell me, “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.” This conversation, like the one about sex, is one given out necessity. But I would bet everything that I own that this conversation isn’t a rite of passage in every American household.

The Hate U Give literally gives space to African-American readers to exist and breathe without fear. Thomas validates the complexity of this community with every word that Starr speaks or shouts, and each chapter of this book reminds her young, black audience that they are worthy of being seen and listened to. Simply put, Thomas is telling her readers that she sees them, she hears them, and that they matter.

My Verdict:

Anyone, regardless of race, creed, or origin can read this book and find something to love about it. Thomas draws a brilliant protagonist that we can all learn from in Starr Carter and makes you think about what we define as acceptable language in this country. And while I hope you all take the time to read this book, don’t forget what Thomas is trying to tell us: black readers matter, and so do black lives.

Photo by Sticker You on Unsplash

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Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life: Review of Always and Forever, Lara Jean

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize that today’s eclipse was a serious thing. I mean, I believed it was happening because I believe in science, unlike some people in our government, but I missed the fact that solar eclipses don’t come around very often and today is a pretty big deal. Don’t worry, I borrowed my husband’s eclipse glasses (which are seriously so unimpressive), caught my glimpse of the moon passing over the sun, and successfully avoided #fomo.

But how did I almost miss this? How did I not realize that #SolarEclipse17 is important and not just some other day in human history? Because I feel like every day of this year has somehow become a huge deal. I have become so caught up in the batshit craziness that is American politics, and I feel like every single day adds a new item to the mile-long list of Crazy Important Things I need to keep track of in my head. These past few weeks in particular have been absolutely ridiculous. I’m not that surprised that I kind of brushed this eclipse aside, because honestly, it was just another extraordinary thing happening in a world that has been wracked by the abnormal and insane recently.

I’m a little tired of thinking about rare eclipses and impending nuclear war and white supremacists marching across the grounds of my alma mater, because it’s just too much. I also believe that the best stories explore what is extraordinary about mundane human life, which, if this were any other year, would be the norm. So I’m here to share my review of a deliciously delightful YA novel which does just that. Jenny Han unfolds the special and completely inimitable time that is high school senior year in her novel titled Always and Forever, Lara Jean.

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This novel is the third installment in a trilogy that includes To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. The three books follow Korean-American Lara Jean Covey and her romantic entanglements growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I highly recommend reading the first two books before diving into this one, because not doing so would be a reading sin, but this book is particularly special and is such a satisfying and realistic finale to a beautiful series.

Boys are Great, But Sisters Are the Best

Lara Jean meets her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky in the first novel of the series, and let me tell you, Han really knows how to create an absolutely charming romantic lead. Peter is handsome, silly slash witty, and complements Lara Jean’s quirkiness with his effortless charisma. Their chemistry has you rooting for them as they navigate the stress of senior year together.

But where Jenny Han really shines is in her ability to root Lara Jean in her sisterhood. Lara Jean’s relationships with her younger sister Kitty and her older sister Margot completely trump her romance with Peter. I loved reading about how these three young women who have completely different personalities work through family life together, whether it involves their dad getting remarried to a neighbor or supporting Lara Jean when she doesn’t get into the University of Virginia. As someone who has two sisters, I rarely read about sibling relationships that are just as complicated and important as romantic relationships, especially in YA literature.

Young Adults Are People Too

As a former teacher and as a proud consumer of YA novels, I hate it when writers or people in general treat young people as if their concerns and their values aren’t fully evolved and thus aren’t that important. I hear more often than not about teenagers and how obsessed they are with their phones and social media and they’re not ready for the real world. And it’s so irritating, because it’s as if we’ve all forgotten what it really means to be young.

Jenny Han hasn’t forgotten. In fact, she cherishes her characters and their youth. She gives them authentic teenage voices, curse words and all, instead of giving them John Green-esque monologues that make them sound like aged professors. Han also revels in the sparkly excitement of senior year. From fun class trips to New York to dancing at prom, Lara Jean’s enthusiasm about it all shines on the page, and it’s because Jenny Han knows that teenagers are actual people and are allowed to feel what they’re feeling without judgment.

So What’s Next? A Fear of the Unknown

Jenny Han knows how to create amazing characters and relationships, and her love for them breathes on the page and makes the reader love them too. But the most important thing that she does in this book is expose the fear and anxiety about the future that lurk behind the excitement of senior year. Lara Jean plans on going to UVA with her boyfriend Peter, and she is thrilled about the prospect of being with him and living near home during her college years. But as we all know, the universe doesn’t really care about your plans. She doesn’t get into UVA, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s world is completely turned upside down.

I cannot give Jenny Han enough credit for this plot choice. It’s such an ordinary and real problem that real students go through, but you don’t necessarily encounter it that often in YA literature. Lara Jean’s fear of the unknown has nothing to do with vampires or fighting to the death in the Hunger Games – her fear is not knowing what her life will be like without her boyfriend and her family nearby because she didn’t get into her first choice school. And reading about that and her anxieties about making sure she’s making the right choice for herself is extraordinary because it’s not extraordinary. It’s a situation that thousands of kids across the country go through every year. And I love that Han makes that the “obstacle” of this novel, because it’s a real one, and it’s a surmountable one.

My Verdict:

 Always and Forever, Lara Jean wins on so many levels. You’ll fall in love with Lara Jean, her cute boyfriend and her even more awesome sisters. You’ll remember that being young isn’t so bad. And you’ll realize that there doesn’t have to be an eclipse or a tweetstorm from the leader of your country in order to make your day extraordinary. Sometimes you’ll find the extraordinary in the everyday lives of real people, with their very relatable problems.

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

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High School Just Really Sucks: Review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

It is a truth universally acknowledged that attending high school in the United States just completely blows. The best, and by best I mean the least harsh, description I’ve heard of someone’s high school experience is “meh, it wasn’t too bad, but I wouldn’t go back for anything.” If THAT is the top of the totem pole, then I think I’m right in saying that no one truly leaves high school completely unscathed. It is a damaging, annoying time to be alive. Everyone cares too much about completely everything, even about the smallest things that shouldn’t matter. We haven’t learned yet to let things go.

At that ripe young age, right before you’re able to spread your wings and figure out who you really are and what you want, everything matters. What you wear, the grades you get, the friends you have – it ALL matters SO MUCH. Kids walk around, stuck in their heads, so aware of how they’re being seen, and they’re bouncing off their classmates who are all doing the exact same thing. High school is a swirling vortex of hormones and other people’s opinions, and you’re lucky if you get out with a “meh, it wasn’t too bad.”

Cuban-American author Meg Medina transports you back to this unforgettable time in Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Her lead character Piddy Sanchez undoubtedly does not escape the horrors of her high school experience with a “meh.” Piddy, short for Piedad, finds herself at a new school and immediately the object of  an unknown girl’s (Yaqui Delgado) attention. A classmate tells Piddy on page 1 that Yaqui most likely doesn’t like that Piddy “shakes her ass” so much (a side effect of too much dancing with her mom’s BFF Lila), and that Yaqui, well, wants to kick her ass.

Yaqui book cover

What follows this revelation is Piddy’s anxiety-ridden journey, a deft navigation through the horrors of modern-day bullying, the power of female friendships, and Medina’s insight into a colorful, vocal chorus of beautifully individual voices.

A World of Fear

Medina does something incredibly crucial in her portrayal of Piddy’s harassment in this story – she focuses on Piddy’s atmospheric fear rather than on the physical violence she endures. Piddy’s fear of Yaqui and what she or her friends might do permeates every part of her life, and lurks behind every conversation or thought that she has. It doesn’t stop when she leaves school and gets home, or when she decides to skip school to avoid Yaqui – the terror hangs around her, constantly.

It’s really easy to tell kids that are being bullied to “move on” or “ignore it,” but many kids don’t have the emotional equipment yet to ignore bullying AND deal with their anxiety about it. Meg Medina reminds you that bullying is not an isolated thing in a young person’s life – it is systemic and is a physical weight that victims carry with them everywhere. Piddy is no exception, and while the violence she goes though is horrific and follows her everywhere (especially when her tormentor uploads a video to YouTube), her emotional fear hits you the hardest. This depiction of anxiety as normal is so important, especially for younger readers who might be dealing with something similar to Piddy’s struggle.

Thank God for Salón Corazón

While Piddy’s journey with being bullied is the crux of this story, Medina does a wonderful job of juxtaposing that storyline with Piddy’s relationships outside of school. You get to experience Piddy’s evolving friendship with Mitzi, her best friend who now attends school on Long Island and is living a very different life. There is of course a cute love interest by the name of Joey, who plays a small but important role in the story. But for me, the shining jewel of these relationships comes in the form of Piddy’s mother Clara, Lila, and the cast of Latina women that frequent Salón Corazón.

Real Voices Having Real Conversations

My favorite thing about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is Medina’s command of how her characters sound. This novel is bursting with unique and complex women, and none of these characters sound alike. You can hear the lives the women at the hair salon have lived in their conversations. Lila is as vivacious as Clara is restrained, and the way they speak reminds you that they are real women who exist in our world. Their shared community exists in complete contrast to the clique-filled, competitive halls of Piddy’s school. For me, this other world that Piddy inhabits is a crystal ball that shows how much better and more interesting life becomes after you’re out of high school, and it shows the unparalleled power of female friendships.

My Verdict:

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass does what all YA novels should do. It highlights the pervasive struggle of being bullied, which is something that all young people have either witnessed or experienced for themselves, and it reminds them that their anxiety and emotional well-being are just as crucial as their physical bodies. But this book also reminds older readers, like me, of what it means to be young, and how happy we should all be that we are no longer in high school.

Cover photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash