Slay by Brittney Morris (9781534445420)
Kiera spends her days at high school as one of the only black kids other than her boyfriend and her sister. She is regularly asked by the white kids about what is discriminatory and asked to speak for her entire race. Her sister and boyfriend are both activists and speak loudly and clearly about what is oppressive. But Kiera has her own opinions and they come out in the video game, SLAY, she designed that is specifically focused on giving black gamers their own safe space online. Hundreds of thousands of people now play SLAY, but no one in her life knows that Kiera plays it at all, much less that it is actually her game. When a boy gets killed over game money though, everyone is looking for the elusive game developer. The game gets labeled anti-white by some people and soon Kiera finds herself in the battle of a lifetime to defend her game and keep it from collapsing.
Writing about video games can be nearly impossible. The problem is capturing the action and abilities on screen while still keeping the game believable and understandable. Morris does this extremely well. She marries a battle card game with an MMORPG, which works particularly well. It’s a game that readers will want to play themselves, which is a tribute to how well Morris describes the game, gameplay and the world she has created.
Morris has also created great human characters in this novel. Kiera is smart and capable, channeling her energy and anger at the casual racism of other games into building one of her own. I love that we get to enter Kiera’s story after the development of the game and once it is already popular. The novel also wrestles very directly with racism, with stereotypes, and with being yourself in a world that excludes you and your voice.
A brilliant video game book that celebrates being black and the many dimensions that brings. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781524765347)
From the time he was a small boy, Thurgood Marshall was destined to be a lawyer. He even convinced his parents to have his name legally changed from Thoroughgood to Thurgood at age six. Thurgood faced racism growing up in Baltimore in the 1920’s. He had to attend the overcrowded Colored High School which had no library, gym or cafeteria. His father worked at jobs where he served wealthy white customers, including at a country club that did not allow black people to be members. His father also taught him to debate and argue ideas. When he attended Lincoln University, Thurgood was loud, funny and a great arguer. He went to law school at Howard University where he learned to fight for civil rights in court. His first major legal fight was to force his top pick law school to accept black students. Again and again, Thurgood fought to create laws that focused on equality for all.
A picture book biography that tells the story of the youth and upbringing and early legal cases of the first African American on the Supreme Court, this book really celebrates how he became a weapon for civil rights. Winter makes sure to keep the inherent racism in the society at the forefront, pointing out moments in Thurgood’s life when he was targeted and almost killed. The resilience and determination on display throughout his life is inspiring.
Collier’s art is done in a mix of watercolor and collage. Using patterns and textures, Collier builds entire worlds from paper, from a ruined movie theater to haunting segregated schools. The illustrations are powerful and add much to this story of racism and fighting back.
Strong and compelling, this biography belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books.
Dig by A. S. King (9781101994917)
Meet five teenagers who either barely know one another or don’t know each other at all, but all are from the same broken family. It’s a family where the roots run deep into potato farming and racism. It’s a family broken by high expectations, greed, and an inability to connect. Each of the teens carries their own moniker other than their first name. There is the Freak, a girl who can flicker from one place in the world to another. The Shoveler is a boy with big secrets to tell. CanIHelpYou? works at a drive through, selling more than burgers and fries to her customers. Loretta the Flea-Circus Ring Mistress lives in a family of violence and hunger, but has her own flea circus at least. First-Class Malcolm lives with his father who is dying of cancer and jets back and forth to Jamaica. Each teen carries so much weight, so much dirt with them, and yet there is hope if they can just dig deep.
I won’t lie, this is one tough book. King wrestles with the issues, choices and lives faced by teens in the modern world. They are lives embittered by racism, poverty, drugs, violence, and lies. Still, as the reader gets to know each teen, there is grace beneath all of these layers of family crap and expectations. There is responsibility too, responsibility to be different than the previous generation and make better choices for themselves and their families.
I also won’t lie about the fact that this is a very important book. It looks at racism with an eye towards white people taking responsibility for their history, for their current state, for making assumptions, relying on friends of color for cover, and for not being allies in a real way. It lays all of that bare, insisting that the characters and readers take action in their lives to remedy things, to speak of the unspoken, to insist on change happening. So this tough read is filled just enough light through the muck of life.
A great teen novel full of depth with a strong voice and a definitely point of view. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali (9781534442726)
Zayneb keeps a diary with two types of things in it. There are marvels, something that is extraordinary and wonderful. Then there are oddities, which perplex, confuse or concern. Zayneb has always been someone willing to take on the world, something that gets her in trouble at times. So of course, she is the one willing to confront her racist teacher and ends up suspended and even pulling one of her classmates into trouble along with her. Zayneb ends up leaving for Doha, Qatar, to get an early start to her spring break. On the trip there, she meets Adam. Adam also does a marvels and oddities journal, but he is harboring a deep secret. He has recently been diagnosed with MS, the same disorder that took his mother’s life. Still, he is intrigued with Zayneb just as she is with him. While they are both Muslim, they don’t see life in the same way, though they are both busy putting on fronts for one another and not showing who they truly are.
Ali takes racism towards Muslims on in a very direct way. She shows microaggressions and other forms of aggression very effectively, demonstrating how each and every day as a girl wearing a hijab, Zayneb is subtly and directly attacked and questioned. But Ali doesn’t rest there, she also shows how to combat it, giving Zayneb tons of resilience and plenty of anger. Zayneb is a wonderful character because of the depth of her passion for being an activist and standing up for herself and for others. She is simply a kick-ass character. Adam on the other hand, is quieter and protective of those he loves in a different and gentler way. He too wrestles with questions and concerns, bearing the burden so as not to bother others until he can’t handle it alone any longer. He is a great foil for Zayneb’s character.
The city of Doha is also a character in the book. It comes alive with its markets and museums, public spaces and private homes. There is a beautiful sense of the city, one that none of the characters take for granted. It is not seen as a perfect place. Zayneb still has to confront overt racism there as well.
A romance that is strengthened by a focus on racism and a firm stance on being yourself. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by Salaam Reads.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)
Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.
Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.
Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.
An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Hector: A Boy, a Protest, and the Photograph That Changed Apartheid by Adrienne Wright (9781624146916)
In South Africa on June 16, 1976, Hector Pieterson was killed in what was supposed to be a peaceful student protest. The photograph of him being carried from the scene helped lead to the end of apartheid. The book is told from three perspectives: Hector’s, his older sister, and the photographer who took the image. A new law had gone into effect that all South Africans had to have half of their subjects taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white ruling class. The book shows Hector trying to remember to count in Afrikaans at home. On the fateful day, Hector gets ready for school but when he gets there, the students aren’t attending school but are protesting instead. He gets caught in the protest and then a bullet is fired. After the crowds disperse, Hector is on the ground.
Done in a graphic novel style, this nonfiction book is based on interviews with Hector’s family to see what sort of boy he was. The book shows his playful side and the tough choices his family made to have their children in school. The book also shows touches of what life was like during apartheid with separate entrances for black and white and oppressive laws. The art is done in sandy tones and deftly shows the dominance of apartheid in everyday life.
An important book that speaks to one boy and the way his death helped transform a country. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib (9780525575115)
In this vibrant graphic novel, Malaka tells the story of growing up as a child of an Egyptian father and a Filipino mother in the United States. She learned to meet both families’ expectations though sometimes they contradicted one another and how to carefully switch between the two. There are stories of breaking unwritten rules in Egypt by skateboarding in the streets as well as tales of not being fully accepted by the Filipino kids at school. Malaka considered white culture something to long after, wishing for sandwich lunches and the lifestyles she saw on TV. As she grew up, she began to figure out how to value her own unique cultural background and celebrate it.
Gharib has created a graphic memoir that shows so many elements of being from an immigrant family, being a person of color, and being of mixed race and heritage. She is open and honest about her own struggles with asking the problematic question of where someone is from, of her own code switching, and her own disdain for her heritage as a child even while she loved her family deeply. Her book is a love letter to her families while still being an honest view of the impact of whiteness on children of color.
The art in the book is full of reds and blues, the colors echoing the American flag. The colors are used cleverly to show character’s hair colors and create diverse and inclusive illustrations. The graphic novel is well paced, full of blunt commentary about race and America, and just the right zing of food and culture.
A diverse and funny look at families, race and America. Appropriate for ages 12-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
New Kid by Jerry Craft (9780062691200)
All Jordan wanted to do was go to art school, but instead his parents decided to send him to a private school full of opportunities for his future. Starting the school in seventh grade on financial aid, Jordan is also one of the only students of color there. Jordan is soon trying to figure out how to navigate from his Washington Heights neighborhood to the Riverdale Academy Day School. As he travels to school, he steadily changes his outfit to fit in more. He also does code switching to fit in better. Still, with some teachers it doesn’t work at all and they continually get his name wrong as well as that of other kids of color. As Jordan’s frustration grows, it shows in his art as he creates pointed social critiques of a school he is starting to really enjoy though he wonders if he will ever fit in.
This is one of the best books for middle school age that deals with microaggressions, bias, privilege, and racism. Given that it is a graphic novel too, that makes it all the more appealing as a source for discussion. Craft takes on all of these issues with a forthright tone, frustration and a willingness to engage. He doesn’t make all of the white people clueless, but many of them are just like in real life. Jordan’s struggle to codeswitch and fit in is beautifully conveyed in the art and story line.
Jordan serves as a catalyst in the school, crossing lines to make new friends, avoiding the school bully, and having serious conversations with other kids. At the same time, the book is filled with humor, which offsets the serious tone about racial and biased incidents which are never laughed off. The inclusion of all sorts of pop culture references makes the book all the more fun to read.
A strong and compelling work of graphic fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hands Up! by Breanna J. McDaniel, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (9780525552314)
A police phrase is turned into something much more positive in this picture book. Starting with being a small baby and lifting her hands to play peek-a-boo, an African-American girl grows up on these pages. Along the way, she raises her hands for all sorts of positive reasons like getting dressed, reaching high, and doing her hair. She takes action with her hands up: getting books from a shelf, dancing, playing basketball, and worshiping. The book ends with the girl joining her family in a protest march.
McDaniel has written a book about the joy of life, the small and big things, and the important aspects of a life well lived. It is a book about not living in fear and not being seen as a problem because of the color of your skin. It is a book that reads as a celebration and its own protest against racism and prejudice.
The illustrations by Evans are so bright they almost blind. Pages are filled with sunshine and lemon yellows. He uses textures for clothing that make the book more tactile and organic. Throughout, he depicts a loving multi-generational African-American family.
Powerful and standing in its truth, this book is exactly what is needed right now. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.