High school senior Justyce McAllister is feeling the heat of being an African American man in 2017. The news is full of stories of unarmed black men being shot by white cops. He’s arrested by a police officer for just walking down the street, when all he was doing was trying to keep his drunk ex-girlfriend from getting behind the wheel of her car. He gets dragged into a frustrating racial argument in his Societal Evolution class with classmates who believe in “colorblindness.” Disgruntled students at his exclusive private school suggest that the only reason Justyce got into Yale was to “fill a quota.” On top of all that, he’s also fighting a strong attraction to his debate partner Sarah Jane, who is smart, funny….and white. Life is becoming beyond complicated, so Justyce seeks out the wisdom of the one person he thinks might understand what he’s going through: Martin Luther King. In a series of poignant letters to Dr. King, Justyce tries to understand why “things aren’t as equal as folks say they are” and how he can keep moving forward when it seems like the whole system is bent on pushing him back. The writing helps, a little. But when Justyce’s world explodes at the end of a gun, his belief in MLK’s philosophy is shattered. Will he answer violence with violence or will he find the strength to rise above and be like Martin? Nic Stone’s debut novel reads like a timely fictional primer of the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the frank and authentic dialogues that take place between Justyce, his friends and teachers like Dr. Dray, who teaches Societal Evolution. The topical, provocative discussions that take place in Dr. Dray’s class immediately took me back to the heated arguments that reverberated in Ms. Lemry’s Contemporary American Thought class in Chris Crutcher‘s YA classic Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Like Crutcher before her, Nic Stone is writing about the issues a new generation of teens care about in a raw voice that is undeniably true. You won’t be able to look away. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.
Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)
ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.