Tag: Balzer+Bray

Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi


My cousins are hurting. My aunt is hurting. My mother is hurting. And there is no one here to help. How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points a the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.

Seventeen year-old Fabiola and her mother came to America to live with her cousins and aunt, to start over with the “good life” in America. Yet, as Fabiola crosses into customs, her mother is left on the other side, detained and not able to enter. Fabiola is forced to go on without her, to begin to live the “good life” without her mother. Yet this “good life” isn’t anything like Fabiola imagined. Fabiola must learn to navigate life in Detroit as she seeks help from her spirit guides to make her family whole again.

Audience and Privilege
While I’m rating American Street as a four-star book, this is another book, much like The Hate U Give that ultimately wasn’t for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I absolutely did and plan to recommend it within my friend-group widely. That’s also not the say the author doesn’t want white readers, but simply to say that at the end of the day, if I hadn’t enjoyed this book, it’s not my place to review it poorly. The experiences of Fabiola and her cousins in American Street are representative of real lives—people who live lives I cannot imagine and who make choices I have never had to make, largely because of the color of my skin and the place of privilege I occupy. If I didn’t like the book because I didn’t relate to it or understand it, then that is reflective of me and not the book.

(FTR–I do appreciate the irony in my reviewing books written by authors of color while simultaneously questioning white authors who write about the experiences of people of color as with Trell and Killers of the Flower Moon. There are enough white authors trying to speak for people of color that I never want to take someone else’s place to speak their story. Even in reviewing books, there are inherent biases at play—even as I try to be aware of my privilege and how it can drive my reactions to books, no one is completely aware of or able to separate themselves from their privilege.)

I did not, however, want to skip reviewing this book. While I don’t have a large audience, I do want my blog to serve as a place to find books you might otherwise not read. I try to read widely and have pretty diverse taste (so long as its well-written!) so it is my hope that there is a little something from everyone here.

With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and review American Street so that perhaps, Reader, you might pick it up when you would have otherwise missed it. I wouldn’t have picked it up myself if Jennifer Latham, author of Dreamland Burning, hadn’t recommended it during her author chat for the MMD book club at the beginning of the summer.

One of the things that made American Street so powerful for me was the author’s use of a limited point of view to tell a far wider-reaching story than the reader realizes at the beginning. The entire story is told from the point of view of Fabiola, a recent immigrant from Haiti whose mom is detained when they try to return to the United States where Fabiola was born seventeen years before. Because there are some ways in which it is obvious—clothing, makeup, culture—that Fabiola is Naïve—with a capital “N”—it is easy to see only those little things and miss the forest for the trees. Because the reader’s view is limited by Fabiola’s ability to experience and grasp what is going on around her, the events of the end of the book are all the more shocking. Fabiola didn’t see them coming and so, to a large extent, I didn’t either. I’m fairly good at picking up surprising twists or at least knowing one is coming, and I did not see where this book was going to go until I was almost on top of it. And then I desperately wanted to be wrong. Zoboi’s use of point of view here was masterful and not something that is this well done very often.

Characters and Magical Realism
To make sense of the word around her, Fabiola connects the people around her to her lwas, or Haitian spirit guides. For some characters, this makes them more sympathetic and adds a layer of richness to the character development—her cousin Donna is Ezili-Danto—the lover and the beauty who is also the warrior. Two sides, one person. For others, like Bad Leg, the homeless man across the street, seeing him as the lwa Papa Legba imbues the book with a layer of magical realism that then opens the door to events that are not entirely realistic, yet still fit within the larger scheme and story of the book.

Immigrant Experience
Much of the charm of American Street comes down to Fabiola’s experiences as being out of her culture.   While the slips are frustrating to Fabiola, they are charming to the reader and serve to remind readers how young she is–both literally and in experience.  Fabiola, while naïve, has been well-loved by her mother and well-cared-for. Her cousin’s home—literally on the corner of American and Joy streets—was the Promised Land where everything would better. So when Fabiola is dropped into this intersection, without her mother, into a foreignness she did not expect, she has to remind herself to be happy, to smile because this is the “good life.”

My heart aches for her in these moments. I know what it is to have small disappointments result from my expectations not meeting reality, but the magnitude for Fabiola is staggering. For Fabiola, it is another earthquake—the foundations cracked, the earth roiling under her feet. Yet even in Haiti during the earthquake, she had friends and neighbors, her mother. Here she has no one. Fabiola has to navigate not only what it means to become an American but also how to life a life different and more disappointing than the one she imagined for herself when she and her mother planned to come to America, all without seeming ungrateful to her cousins and aunt who barely have enough to provide for another mouth.

Like The Hate U Give or, to a slightly lesser extent, When Dimple Met Rishi, this is a YA book that skews towards older/heavier themes. Some of the common elements of YA are here—Fabiola is besotted with Kasim, a teenage boy equally smitten with her. He “invades” her every thought and takes her on some dates that teenage boys would do well to take notes on. The limited sex scenes are just that—very limited—and tastefully vague. I don’t think there’s much to worry about there.

My labeling the book as being more of an older YA book, however, stems from the larger themes. Here as in Sing, Unburied, Sing, there are characters selling drugs, yet as with Ward’s characters, these characters are nuanced, with good reasons to be making these choices (even if they are, ultimately, the wrong choices). There is also violence throughout the book, as the neighborhood is rough and Fabiola’s cousin Donna is in a volatile, abusive relationship. These themes and violence would make me hesitate to recommend the book to anyone under sixteen, and even then, if a teenager were reading this, this would be a book to read and unpack together.

This is a book I highly recommend, particularly for people who are trying to read more diversely. Fabiola is lovely and it is difficult for the reader not to feel deeply empathetic for her and want the best for her. The events of the book are rough, but frankly, so is life for many teenagers living in Detroit in 2017. The book is well-written, though the dialogue is accurate for how teenagers would speak (so the vocabulary would be NSFW).

Reviews by people of color
If this review intrigued you, you should also check out the reviews from Rich in Color and Epic Reads.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Ibi Zoboi (@ibizoboi)
Date read: September 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

The beautiful metal print in the background of the picture in this post is by artist A’Driane Nieves.  Her work can be found here.

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out. Daddy is moved aside and Mama wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s alright, baby. It’s alright.”

The Hate U Give explores the aftermath to a girl, a family, and a community after one of their own—a black teenage boy named Khalil—is brutally murdered by a white cop. The novel follows sixteen-year old Starr, a witness and passenger in the car the night of the murder, as she struggles to find her voice and what it means for her to be a black teenager living in 2017.

Not For Me
I hesitated in writing this review—The Hate U Give isn’t about me and it isn’t for me. Even if I hated this book (which I absolutely don’t), it wouldn’t really be my place to say that anymore than it’s my place to critique “Lemonade.”

They. Weren’t. Made. For. Me.

In fact, I decided early on that if I were going to give this book any less than five stars, that I would simply refrain from rating it at all. Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.

The Hate U Give sucked me in quickly with a fast-paced narrative and a likeable main character who was easy to identify with, even as a white person who did not grow up in anything like Starr’s neighborhood. Starr is studious, funny, and athletic—she has universal appeal and it is easy for most readers to see something of themselves in her. I didn’t identify whatsoever with her love of basketball, but her studiousness and teenage worries over friends hit home for me.

There are, however, many things in the book that will likely make a white audience uncomfortable—the foremost example to me being Starr’s father’s lauding of the Nation of Islam. It is to Thomas’s credit that she wrote a book that can be so universally read; but at the end of the day this is a book for black readers. It should make you squirm a little if you’re white. That squirming can be good for you—why does this make you uncomfortable? Is the reason you’re uncomfortable about you or is what’s happening here actually wrong? (Spoiler alert: the answer is probably the former).

I do think this is a book everyone should read so (obviously, since you’re here) I went ahead with my planned review, with the recognition that there is probably a lot that went over my head and that I didn’t understand that would resonate with a black audience. It felt like the lesser of two evils to review the book and hopefully bring it more attention than to refrain. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.)

The title “The Hate U Give” comes from a Tupac reference to “Thug Life”—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. The hate, the vitriol, even the malignant neglect the vast majority of white society gives to African Americans starting when they are very young ultimately comes back to effect everyone. It isn’t just the black community that is hurt by Khalil’s death in this book. Through Starr and her siblings, the effects of the murder reach into their predominantly white school. Parts of the city literally burn as riots break out.

To be sure—my point here is not “treat black people nicer so that you can have nicer things yourself, dear white person.” However, it is shockingly easy for white America to look at the problems coming from predominantly black and poor neighborhoods and blame the people that live there without ever thinking about white America’s systemic racist policies and decisions that resulted in the ghettoization of black Americans. White people are not innocent of the problems that created black ghettos; therefore, white people are not innocent of the resulting poverty and crime.

It is hard to ignore the larger societal issues at play when Thomas gives you the back story of why Khalil may have been selling drugs before his murder and why another character named DeVonte joined a gang. It’s not so easy as their making bad decisions or being bad people. Thomas doesn’t completely exculpate them, but by putting specific, likeable faces on issues like drug dealing and gang-banging, she invites her reader to question their biases to see that good people can make bad decisions for good reasons. And that these same people are far more than what a single bad decision defines them as.

Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland.
Through the experiences of Starr, Thomas puts a face on those left behind when black people are murdered by those who are sworn to serve and protect. To be sure—each of the more than one thousand African Americans killed by cops each year has a story, a name, and people who love them. Unfortunately, with talking heads screaming at each other in the media, the story the reader gets here with Khalil is not one we get to see for the vast majority of those murdered, at least not without a lot of effort to dig and cut through the crap. We don’t see Michael Brown’s struggle to provide for his family, even though he isn’t yet a man himself. We don’t see the agony the witnesses in the Eric Garner case went through to decide whether to testify or not—and the danger of any decision to “snitch” that might result. We don’t see the impact, months later, on the family of Sandra Bland. Not like this. Not in this detail.

Through fictional Khalil, Thomas brings home every name that crossed the headlines over the last few years and reminds us that each black boy and each black woman was, at the end of the day, human and loved. That it is a tragedy when any life is taken at the hands of the police.

Time Capsule Book
Because of its timeliness it is easy to see why some critics are referring to The Hate U Give as a new classic and a book with staying power. I’m not sure I agree it is a classic, largely because there are many references to things like Tumblr that are quickly going to become dated. To me, the book read like a “Time Capsule” book. By that, I mean The Hate U Give is a snapshot in time of 2017 where this real, pervasive injustice is happening far too often in modern society. This book will stand through time as representative of where we are as a country and a people now. I could certainly be wrong (and would not be disappointed if I am!); it is just difficult for me with the speed at which technology changes to see many modern books as “classics” if the technology and references in them are going to become dated and lost in a few years. I loved the Jessica Darling books as a teen myself, but they don’t hold the same appeal to the YA audience today because so many of the little situations that arise wouldn’t happen nearly the same way today with the advances in technology we’ve made since the ‘90s. Because of this, I see The Hate U Give as less likely to be studied the way we study Jane Austen now in 2217, though it absolutely deserves attention and should (and, I hope, will) stand the test of time as a powerful snapshot of society in 2017.

Things Black People Deal With But Shouldn’t Have To 101
Though this book certainly wasn’t written with a white audience in mind, Thomas is masterful at explaining things like code-switching to the audience—

I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang. Some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a sassy black girl. I have to watch what I say and how I say it. But I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.

—without sounding heavy-handed to those who already know what things like code-switching are. If I did not have mixed-race friends who consciously moderate their accent based on their audience, I don’t know that I would know what code-switching is, and I certainly didn’t know what it was when I was in high school.

As a black student at a predominantly white school, Starr has to be aware of how she comes across—because black children are seen as more culpable and less innocent than white ones, because she is one of a handful of black kids in her school and therefore her actions will be imputed to all black people (but only her negative actions, of course), because she doesn’t want to affirm stereotypes. Starr thinks more about her state of being on a daily basis than most white folks likely do in a month.

This short explanation plus the extended examples of code-switching in The Hate U Give are but one example of Thomas making the book accessible to readers of all ages so that maybe those who aren’t familiar with these ideas can begin to see all of the little ways people of color experience life differently, through no fault of their own. (Thomas also expertly explores the harm of microaggressions through one of Starr’s friendships).

While we (white folks) should be doing more hard work to root out our biases and discover our blind spots, I do think books like The Hate U Give can be a good non-threatening way to begin to recognize issues like microaggressions. Regardless of whether you are beginning because you are actually a young adult for whom this book was written or whether, like me, you grew up sheltered in a predominantly white town, it is often less threatening to be confronted with something you are wrong in through narrative fiction. This doesn’t mean you get to stay in your safe fictional world forever; however, it is better to begin with something like The Hate U Give than to never begin. Reading books like The Hate U Give teaches readers empathy and I defy you to read this book and not feel for Starr, Khalil’s family, and their community, regardless of where you stand on Black Lives Matter.

Fangirling hard for Bahni Turpin
I listened to The Hate U Give on audio. I would be remiss if I did not rave about the excellent choice of narrator for Thomas’s work. Even before listening to this book, I had an audiobook voice crush on Bahni Turpin, the narrator here. I would listen to her read food ingredient labels. She also read A Piece of Cake, a memoir I read earlier in the year by Cupcake Brown, a woman who grew up in the foster system and was a heavy drug user for years before getting clean and becoming an attorney. Admittedly going from the voice of drugged-out, screaming Cupcake to having that voice also be Starr threw me a little for a loop. I had to remind myself for the first few minutes that Starr was a good girl in this story. (Case in point for my undying love of Bahni Turpin—the fact that Bahni is one of the readers is what pushed me to use my most recent audiobook credit on Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.) Bahni is genius as Starr and makes the audiobook for The Hate U Give a real standout. She is breathtaking in her voice acting as teenage Starr and moved me to tears several times.

If this weren’t already abundantly clear, I think this is a book everyone should read. Because of some language and violence, the book skews a little older YA than most of its genre-mates but still has a strong appeal and well-developed narrative for adult readers.

Author: Angie Thomas (@angiethomas)
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray) (imprint of HarperCollins @harpercollinsus)
Audiobook narrator: Bahni Turpin (@prospertunia)
Date Published: February 28, 2017
Date Read: July 9, 2017
Rating: 5 stars