Ray Carney is a small-time furniture salesman just trying to get by, who is constantly tempted by the easy payday of the criminal life in this fascinating historical fiction by Colson Whitehead. Ray knows that if he wants to keep his little family safe and prosperous in 1960’s era Harlem, he needs to focus on his day job–owning and running a respectable furniture store that caters to middle class Black families. But he keeps being pulled into his after-midnight job–fencing stolen goods that his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddy occasionally drops in his lap. Despite Ray’s guilt about sliding into the hood lifestyle that characterized his shifty father’s life, this situation works just fine, until Freddie’s smart mouth pulls them into a questionable job that could not only expose Ray’s criminal side to the world, but could have fatal consequences for them both. Full of crackling period dialogue and unexpectedly interesting fun facts about (wait for it) couch fabric and furniture advertising, this story of crime, family and revenge is lots lighter than Whitehead’s last two novels and darkly funny. Harlem Shuffle blends a top notch plot with a richly atmospheric stetting that ensures you’ll not only be highly entertained, you’ll also learn something.
Stories that center around the Black American teen experience for everyone.
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia
In 1860 Louisiana, the plantation-owning Guilbert family has fallen on hard times, at least according to eldest son and heir Lucien. Though they still maintain their palatial home, land and slaves, Lucian’s business failures and growing debt have put the property at risk. Lucien is now dependent on Byron, his son, to make a good match and marry the respectable Eugenie Duhon, who’s hand comes with a sizable dowry. Lucien’s mother, Madame Sylvie, the aged matriarch of the ironically named Le Petit Cottage plantation, is not so worried. Years ago she buried her dead husband’s gold in a secret location in the cane fields and when the time is right, she will tell Lucien where to dig. Until then, she is more concerned with her legacy. Madame Sylvie has hired a French painter to come to Le Petit Cottage in St. James parish and paint her portrait, so that future generations of Guilberts will see her noble likeness and appreciate the many sacrifices she has made to maintain the Guilbert family reputation.
Like many people of their time, the Guilberts believe that everything they have was earned by themselves, when in reality, it is made possible by the enslaved people that are born, work and die on their plantation. They do not recognize the humanity of enslaved people, nor would it ever occur to them to do so. People like Marie and Louise, twin sisters who serve as housemaids and are the product their mother being raped by one of Lucien’s French business associates. Like Lily, the cook who rarely speaks, and never about her beloved son Jesse who Lucien callously murdered when he believed Jesse and Byron to be too close as children. Like Thisbe, who was taken from her family in the fields when she was only six years old, given the name of Marie Antoinette’s dog and made to be Madame Sylvie’s hands and feet. She is never to speak or have a thought of her own, though the one thing Madame can’t control is her quick mind. But a reckoning is coming, in the form of a party to celebrate Madame’s finished portrait, where all will be revealed, including the location of the hidden gold and the true Guilbert family legacy that Madame Sylvie has tried desperately to ignore, despite the fact that the violent, shameful evidence of it is all around her.
Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia has penned a mesmerizing and meticulously researched anti-Gone with the Wind that never looks away from the unvarnished reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. In her illuminating author’s note, RWG explains that her story focuses on the white plantation owners rather than the enslaved people who worked their land because the fact is that racism is a white problem, not a Black one: “Take the free and enslaved Black people out of it. While they would be present in the story, I wouldn’t task them…to prove themselves extraordinary or human. Instead I would look at a family whose livelihood insisted on slavery, and the enduring legacy of racism handed down to their heirs, regardless of their connection to an Antebellum past.” Unlike anything RWG has written before (and trust me, I’ve read every one) this extraordinary historical fiction will give you a true understanding of America’s slave-holding past and how it ties into our racially divided nation today, while also being an utterly compelling and thrillingly dramatic epic that showcases the contradictory, stubborn and ultimately hopeful nature of our flawed human condition. DO NOT MISS IT!
Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
High school senior Evie Thomas was a compulsive romance reader and true love aficionado–until her dad cheated on her mom and they got a divorce. Now Evie wishes “I could go back to being the girl who thought her parents, especially her dad, could do not wrong…I used to believe in happily-ever-afters because they had one.” Grieving the end of her parents’ marriage, Evie declares war on love, and decides once and for all to get rid of her beloved romance novel collection. But a funny thing happens when she drops off her books at the little free library near her L.A. neighborhood. Evie meets an odd old woman who insists she take a used book from the library called Instructions for Dancing. Then shortly after she returns home, she begins seeing visions of the end of strangers’ love affairs. All she has to do is catch a random couple kissing, and suddenly she sees their whole relationship unfold in her head until it ends–badly. Hoping to stop the visions, she decides to follow the book’s directions and take dance lessons from the studio listed in the back. And that is where she meets tall, dark and handsome X, who threatens to sweep her off her feet with his witty banter and dashing good looks. But Evie flatly refuses to fall for his many charms. Hasn’t she seen for herself that love never works out, even when it seems like a sure thing? They are signed up for a dance contest by their instructor, and suddenly Evie finds herself spending way too much time with X’s gorgeous self. She will not fall in love! She will not! But the universe and the little free library lady have something else in mind for Evie, and if she’s not careful, she’ll find her cynical heart cracked wide open. Queen of Swoon Nicola Yoon’s effervescent third novel about love, loss, friendship and family, will leave your toes tapping and your heart yearning. I sobbed like a baby when I turned the last page, and you will too when it comes to a library, bookseller or e-reader near you June 2021.
Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson
Seventeen year old Nala is looking forward to a relaxing summer before senior year. Her plan includes experimenting with different hairstyles, hanging out with her cousin-sister-friend Imani and best friend Sadie, and Netflix & chill. But all that goes out the window after she lays eyes on Tye at an “Inspire Harlem” teen activist event. He’s cute, smart and funny, and while Nala doesn’t “believe in love at first sight…in this moment, I am ready to profess my love for Tye Brown.” Tye is also passionate about social justice, one thing that Nala could take or leave. Sometimes it seems like all her friends are in a competition to prove how “woke” they are, and Nala isn’t even interested in playing the game. But now that she’s crushing hard on Tye, Nala finds herself pretending to be way more into activism than she actually is to win his approval. How long can Nala keep up the facade of being a social justice warrior before Tye finds out the truth? And if he does, will he still like the real Nala? Nala is terrified to find out, especially since she’s no longer sure who the “real” Nala is. Between falling for Tye, procrastinating on her college applications and trying to find her place in her family and friend groups, she has lost her self and her voice. Nala might have to take time to know and love herself before she can understand and love Tye. “Self-love is radical love…Today, I’ve started my own revolution.”
Thoughtfully exploring issues of body positivity, racism and virtue signaling, Renee Watson’s warm, character-driven ode to self love validates and uplifts any teen who’s ever tried to fit in, felt left out, or is at crossroads with their identity. This is one Revolution you won’t want to miss!
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
The phenomenal Angie Thomas has given us an early Valentine’s Day gift with this kick ass origin story of Maverick, the boy who grows up to be Starr’s strict, kind father in The Hate U Give.
Maverick Carter has been doing a pretty good job of being the man of the family since his father Adonis went to prison. His older cousin Dre, his smart, beautiful girlfriend Lisa, and his hard working mom help keep him on the straight and narrow, even when his best friend King tries to convince him to sell hard drugs and get more involved in the King Lords gang. Even though he could use the extra cash, Dre makes Maverick steer clear and instead take a job stocking groceries at Mr. Wyatt’s store. Then Maverick’s world is shaken by three cataclysmic events: he finds out that his one-night- stand with homegirl Iesha has resulted in a baby that is one hundred percent his; one of his beloved friends is murdered; and then Lisa tells him she’s also pregnant with his child. Devastated by loss and exhausted by life as a new father, Maverick’s grades start to slip and his bank account empties. Suddenly getting back into the gang life is looking like the only way out. Will Maverick get sucked back into the King Lords? Fans of The Hate U Give know exactly what path Maverick takes, but this stunning story of love, grief and choices stands on it’s own even if you haven’t read THUG.
It was such a joy to read this book alongside my copy of The Hate U Give, and meet these characters again as their younger selves. Reading about the fate of certain characters broke my heart, while others made it sing. And just like in The Hate U Give, there’s plenty of Tupac references to go around, including the title, which is a play on the title of Tupac’s book of poetry, The Rose that Grew From Concrete. Whether you are an Angie Thomas newbie or die hard fan of her writing, you will definitely want to pick (up) this irresistible Rose!
New York Times YA Debuts
Dear Teen Peeps, some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted to RRÂ AT ALLÂ since, like, September. That’s because of a little thing called Hybrid Teaching in the Time of COVID (which I know you all know about, since you are on the other side of the screen) AND because I was working on this sick short list of outstanding YA debut novels. These first time authors have really brought it with these unique tales of identity, love, fame and heartbreak. Take a look and see what you think–it’s not too late to add these to your holiday wish lists!
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson
“Navigating in a space that questions your humanity isn’t really living at all. It’s existing. We all deserve more than just the ability to exist.”
Thirty-three year old writer and activist George M. Johnson‘s powerful coming of age story is both a deeply personal narrative and a robust rallying cry in support of Black queer youth. Johnson recounts specific memories from his childhood and adolescence, and uses each story as a jumping off point to discuss topics ranging from toxic masculinity and gender identity, to the lack of sex education resources for LGBTQ youth. These chapters are interspersed with letters to specific family members who helped support him, including his mom and brother. Not all the memories are joyful. Johnson also writes about the deaths of close family members and beloved friends, and one of the letters isn’t to a nurturing mentor but to a trusted cousin who molested him when he was a child. But through every memory and letter, Johnson emphasizes the right of queer, Black youth to be proud of who they are and to demand their universal right to be seen and heard. By telling his personal story in frank, vulnerable detail, Johnson has created a mighty mirror for LGBTQ teens to see themselves and not only feel known, but loved and accepted.
“It’s time for the world to let queer Black boys unpack their shit. Smile, Black boys.”
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
Seventeen-year-old Enchanted Jones has big dreams. While she hopes to snag a competitive swimming scholarship for college, her true passion is singing. She knows all the classic R & B hits by heart, but writing her own songs is what gets her through the long days of school and babysitting her younger siblings, while both her parents work to keep her and sister Shea in private school and expensive lessons. So when she meets twenty-eight-year old mega-singer Korey Fields at an audition, Enchanted is, well, enchanted when he hears her voice and invites her and her parents to his next sold out concert. Then Korey asks for her number, and soon they are texting everyday. He promises to give her private singing lessons, help her record her own songs, even release an EP. Enchanted feels like she is falling in love, even though she knows he’s too old for her. But can something that feels so right be that wrong? She finds herself lying to her family, missing school and even breaking up with her best friend over Korey. But things really come to a breaking point after her parents reluctantly agree to let her go on tour with Korey, who’s loving attention turns possessive and then terrifyingly violent. Enchanted is trapped. Korey has cut her off from her friend and family, how can she escape when he’s taken over every aspect of her life? Enchanted will have to draw on her inner warrior mermaid and the spirit of her tough-as-nails Grandma in order to find her way back to herself and uncover the horrific truth about Korey Fields.
Award-winning author Tiffany D. Jackson writes repeatedly in her letter to readers that “this book is not about R. Kelly.” Still, it’s hard to read Enchanted’s story and not think of men like R. Kelly or Dr. Luke. Raw, revealing and heartbreaking, Grown shines a powerful and unflinching spotlight on predatory male behavior, showing it for what it is: sick, wrong and indefensible. Because there is no such thing as a “romantic relationship” between an adult and an underaged child, and the outcomes of these tragic encounters are never the young person’s fault. As Jackson concludes in her letter, “…he knew better.” You will NOT want to miss this gripping, righteous read that is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2020.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Jade is about to start her junior year at St. Francis High School, and she hopes this year is different. Maybe this is the year she will finally make a real friend at the mostly white, private high school that she attends on scholarship. Maybe this is the year she will be chosen for the Spanish study abroad program. Maybe this is the year she will learn to speak up about what she really wants and speak out about the things that really bother her. But first she has to complete this new mentorship program called Woman to Women, yet another “opportunity” her white guidance counselor Mrs. Parker has set up for her.
“Sometimes I wish I could say, Oh, no, thank you, Mrs. Parker. I have enough opportunities. My life is full of opportunities. Give an opportunity to someone else. But girls like me, with coal skin and hula-hoop hips, whose mommas barely make enough money to keep food in the house, have to take opportunities every chance we get.”
At first, Jade doesn’t know what to make of her Woman to Woman mentor, Maxine, who arrives late to their first meeting, seems to have boyfriend drama, and lives in a completely different (i.e. rich) zip code. But soon Jade discovers that she and Maxine have more in common than she thought. And through Maxine, Jade gets an opportunity that she actually wants: to showcase her collage art. As she makes her way through junior year, Jade grapples with how to tell her friends, teachers and Maxine the reality of her life, instead of accepting what they think of her without knowing the facts. This powerful, lyrical novel about finding your voice, speaking your truth and standing up for what you believe in was a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King winner, and while I can’t believe I’m only just reading it now, I also can’t think of a better time for everyone to pick it up.
Burn by Patrick Ness
In Patrick Ness‘s fascinating alternate historical fiction, dragons and humans co-exist in an uneasy truce, each side mostly keeping to themselves, until an ancient prophecy threatens to ignite an age old war.
It’s 1957, three years into the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Sixteen year old Sarah Dewhurst and her father Gerald struggle to keep their family farm in Washington state afloat after the death of her mother from cancer. Their lives are made even harder by Deputy Kelby, a racist police officer who harasses Sarah constantly for having a white father and a black mother, and for her friendship with Jason Inagawa, whose family farms nearby and whose mother died in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But things really come to a head when Sarah’s father hires a dragon to help them with the farm work. The dragon is carrying a secret meant only for Sarah that involves an apocalyptic prediction, a swiftly approaching assassin, an FBI investigation and the launching of a Russian satellite. Confused? So is Sarah, but the situation becomes clear pretty quick in this rocket-paced, utterly inventive novel. And just when you think you have a grasp on what’s happening, Ness flips the story again, in the most pleasurably shocking way possible. I “burned”through it in a few days flat, and you will too!
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds‘ galvanizing remix of professor and historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America , is a propulsive examination of race and racism in America, written for a teen audience, but really for everyone. Reynolds moves through American history at full tilt, using humor periodically as a sharp edged sword, to question everything we’ve been taught about famous Americans, from Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglas, to Abraham Lincoln and Angela Davis. By utilizing a framework defined by Kendi (“The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.”) Reynolds shakes up traditional and stereotypical views of our American icons and shows readers the source of racist ideas and how to challenge them. Reynolds pauses on the page when the sheer onslaught of racist ideas and oppression becomes too much, and pushes readers forward when they try to relax back into their more comfortable and familiar versions of presidents and change makers. It’s a book that is almost more experienced than “read,” especially in our turbulent here and now. It’s also a perfect starting place for self-education around race and racism, as the extensive reading list is one of the best I’ve seen for teen people. Ready to take action, or need inspiration to keep going? START HERE.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell & Faith Erin Hicks
It’s “seasonal” friends Deja and Josiah’s last night working at the local pumpkin patch, and their nostalgic feelings are running high. For four years, they’ve worked together at the Succotash Hut, bonding over corn and lima bean stew. Now they’re seniors, and it’s time to trade gourds for college textbooks. But Josiah has one last wish to fulfill before the pumpkin patch is in his rearview mirror forever: introduce himself to Marcy, the mysterious Fudge Shoppe Girl who he’s been crushing on for the last four falls. Deja is more than willing to help him in this quest, especially as it means making the rounds of the patch’s many delicious snack stands. But there are several obstacles standing between Josiah and his true love, including an escaped billy goat named Buck, a candy apple-stealing middle school hooligan who keeps targeting Deja’s treats, and his own confusing emotions. By the time the tired twosome finally track down Marcy, they discover that things have shifted between them, and what each of them thought they wanted has changed over the course of one last memorable journey around the pumpkin patch. This charming autumnal-themed graphic novel is brimming with light romance, cute banter and of course, pumpkin-flavored treats. Fans of Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks will be pleased by their timely, tasty collaboration that is destined to both steal hearts and whet appetites!
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Aspiring chef Emoni Santiago has a lot on her plate (no pun intended!) It’s senior year, and she’s still not sure if college is in the cards. She so busy juggling school, her greasy spoon job, her demanding elective cooking class, and her baby girl Emma that college seems like a distant dream. If she’s going to make it to graduation, the only person she can count on is herself. Because as much as her grandmother ‘Buela loves Emoni and Emma, she also needs a life of her own. And Emoni’s father, who chooses to live most of the year in Puerto Rico, seems more like a drop-in uncle than a dad. And her baby’s daddy, Tyrone? Even though he takes Emma every other weekend, his petty jealousies just makes Emoni tired. The only place she feels truly alive is behind the stove in ‘Buela’s kitchen. There she stirs up food that feeds the stomach AND the soul. Could that be her ticket out of the corner life has crowded her into? Maybe, but only if she’s willing to take the helping hand offered to her by strict Chef Ayden and crush-worthy new boy Malachi. Award winning author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s sophomore novel is a heartwarming delight, penned this time around in sparkling prose that brings the sights, sounds and smells of ‘Buela’s kitchen and Emoni’s class trip to foodtastic Spain to delicious life. Come for the recipes, stay for the swoony romance and complex character relationships. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you May 2019.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Sixteen year old Bri has a dream–to be as big as her legendary rapper dad, Lawless. He was shot and killed just as he was about to go nuclear, and Bri intends to finish what he started. She’s got her best friends Sonny and Malik cheering her on, and fierce Aunt Pooh lining up rap battles for her. But it can be hard to create lines and spit rhymes when she is constantly worried that her hard working mom Jay might slide back into drug addiction, or whether or not they have enough money to pay both the electric AND the grocery bills. When her big break finally happens, it comes at great personal cost. Bri is assaulted by a racist security guard at school, and she fights back the only way she knows how–through words. Her song “On the Come Up” goes viral, and soon Bri’s catchy chorus is being sung by every kid at school and she is being courted by the same manager who made her dad famous. But when her song is used a weapon against her and other black and brown kids, Bri has to make some hard choices about life, love, family and fame that threaten to silence her dream forever.
Teen peeps, however much you loved Starr in The Hate U Give (and I know, we all loved her A LOT) you are going to be blown away by Bri. Hats off to Angie Thomas, who defied the sophomore slump with this classic, yet totally fresh story of a talented neighborhood girl who makes good by staying true to herself. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels forced, as Thomas effortlessly weaves issues of racial profiling, gang violence, feminism, implicit bias and LGBTQ acceptance into Bri’s compulsive, page-turning story. The cast of complex secondary characters defy stereotypes at every turn (tough Aunt Pooh, loving mom Jay, wise brother Trey, goofy friend Sonny, serious friend Malik, Grandma and Granddaddy in their matching outfits) and are so well drawn that they could all star in their own spin-offs. And the music! Rap mavens and hiphop newbies alike will delight in reading about and then going to listen to Bri’s top five “goats” (greatest of all time): Biggie, Tupac, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill and Rakim. Bri’s own original lyrics are so tight, you’ll just wish you could hear the actual beats. Really, the only thing missing is a soundtrack. Which I’m sure will be addressed in the movie–as there is no way in heck this awesome-in-every-way novel (set in the same universe as The Hate U Give) isn’t going to follow its wildly popular predecessor to the big screen. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2019.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene, daughter of a white woman and a black man, is learning the fine art of zombie killing at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore County. Ever since the dead rose up at the Battle of Gettysburg, the States quit fighting each other and began fighting the revenants. The government then created “combat schools,” where black and brown-skinned teens are taught etiquette and sword play in order to become dutiful “Attendants” for wealthy white families and protect them from zombie attacks.Â Jane is thisclose to graduating with honors and returning to her beloved home in Kentucky, when she and her arch frenemy Kate Deveraux are forced to take on a “special assignment” in the wild, uncivilized western frontier. There they learn that the fragile national peace wrought by the bloody efforts of their peers and comrades is in serious jeopardy, and that zombies are actually the last things they should be afraid of. With all of this going on, Jane has absolutely no business falling for two boys who couldn’t be more different. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, and if Jane survives the rapidly amassing zombie herd, she’ll have decide which boy (if any) gets her still-beating ticker. If I sound cagey or mysterious, that’s because it’s almost impossible to write about this compulsively readable alternate history series opener without giving away the secrets at its core. Ireland spins a page turning tale, while also weaving in lots of subtle and not so subtle allusions to our country’s past and present problems with race, power and corruption. Wielding her fictional pen like a critical sword, Ireland scrutinizes and excoriates the real fake science intended to dehumanize black people, the real boarding schools that were set up to “civilize” Native American children, and how Reconstruction morphed into Jim Crow after the Civil War. Readers who come for the zombies will stay for the sharp social commentary and gleeful skewering of stereotypes. Dread Nation is KILLER.