Over the last few weeks, two of the books I read seemed worthy of discussion here but I struggled independently and for different reasons over both in what to write about them for a full post. I don’t know that I will do this often but today is going to be a mini review of both. (And, it turns out, they share a book birthday! #serenedipity).
First up is Dear Martin by Nic Stone.
Justyce McAllister is a top student at one of the best prep schools in Atlanta. He also happens to be one of the only black students in the almost-entirely-white school. In the first chapters of the book, Justyce is aggressively detained by a white police officer over a misunderstanding—an encounter that leaves Justyce shaken. He begins to write letters to Martin Luther King to process through what it would mean to live by Dr. King’s nonviolent principles in a world that still seems hell-bent on forcing subjugation or violent confrontation on African Americans. A second encounter leaves Justyce grieving and grappling with the media spotlight.
The Hate U Give parallels
In many ways, Dear Martin, is strikingly like The Hate U Give—this is, in fact, one of the reasons I wasn’t sure I could do a full post justice. Many of the social justice issues I raised and linked to in that post apply equally. Justyce, like Starr, is one of the only black students at an all-white private school, has a white love interest, experiences micro-aggressions on a daily basis, and becomes a witness to an officer-involved shooting. Despite all of these commonalities, Dear Martin still feels fresh, relevant, and far from repetitive.
Dear Martin goes places The Hate U Give doesn’t—Justyce himself is detained by the police, he becomes hopeless enough that he’s drawn to a gang, he’s maligned in the media as a thug—this being the justification for an officer shooting at Justyce and his friend. Where the major characters in The Hate U Give were all either living in the poor areas Starr lives or, at best, a middle class neighborhood, Justyce finds himself surrounded by a world of money. With this change and the events that throw Justyce unwittingly into the spotlight, Stone is able to explore more fully the ideas of black “respectability” and the idea that, at the end of the day, when it comes to many encounters with white authority/law enforcement, a rich black teenager is just another black man and is just as likely to be killed by police.
I highly recommend Dear Martin for anyone who read and enjoyed The Hate U Give. I also recommend it for readers who were intimidated by THUG—Dear Martin is about half the length and I flew through it in a day. If you’re still not sure what the deal is with Black Lives Matter—why its necessary—or what micro-aggressions look like, Dear Martin is an easy place to start. Justyce and the supporting characters in the book are believable and mostly likeable (except the ones who aren’t supposed to be). The book is tightly written with both YA and adult appeal.
Published: October 17, 2017 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Nic Stone (@getnicced)
Date read: December 15, 2017
Next is I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a National Book Award Finalist for YA Fiction.
First generation Mexican-American teenager Julia (not Jewel-ia) needs to get out of her parents’ house where the combined weight of her parents’ expectations and the perfection of her older sister is slowly crushing her to death in her roach-infested apartment. Until Julia’s sister dies and Julia begins to discover things about her sister that she just can’t let go. The deeper she digs, the harder life gets, the more Julia spirals until it seems there’s no way out. Was her sister’s death her fault? Can Julia ever feel free?
Through Julia’s story, Sanchez is able to introduce scenarios that get at why many immigrants risk everything to leave their homes to come to the US, the dangers inherent in trusting coyotes to lead you across the border, the pressures many immigrant families place on their children, the extreme poverty many immigrants live in (particularly those without status who are then more vulnerable to exploitation), and the stigma of mental illness—both generally and within specific communities. Sanchez handles each of these with aplomb and gentleness, particularly the last.
Why Not a Full Review?
I’ve mentioned a few times that certain books—again, THUG—aren’t written for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them but that at the end of the day I’m not the audience the reader had in mind when she wrote a book. I can learn from these books but I’ll never be able to fully identify with the main characters. I still chose to review books like THUG in hopes that my blog might lead someone to pick them up who wouldn’t have previously, while acknowledging that my review would not be able to do full justice to the lived experience of those who look like and live like the characters. There are things I will never truly understand, as a woman with all of the privileges except the gender one.
My inability to fully review a book like this was never more true than with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book has short conversations and ideas expressed in Spanish that went almost entirely over my head. There were also some significant cultural themes that I knew enough to recognize there was something happening that I didn’t fully understand. My reading of this book was likely only the top of the iceberg.
With that said, I believe down to my bones that representation matters. That we need books like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, THUG, and American Street—books that are written by people of color about people of color and the unique struggles they continue to face in this country. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book and there are not enough opportunities for non-white teenagers to see themselves in books of this caliber. For white audiences, these characters embody the grey of the black-and-white news stories on “illegal immigrants”* and yet another African American slain by cops for chewing his gum the wrong way in the “wrong” neighborhood (re: the nice one). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be read by first generation Latinx teenagers who can’t remember the last time they saw someone who looked and talked like them in a book. It should also be read by the white woman who doesn’t have close friends without status, because even she should have exposure to these themes.
Published: October 17, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf / @knopfteen)
Author: Erika L. Sanchez (@erikalsanchez)
Date read: December 6, 2017
*Do not get me started on how it is impossible for a human being to be illegal.