Title: This Side of Home
Author: Renée Watson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available on February 3, 2015
Summary: A captivating and poignant coming-of-age urban YA debut about sisters, friends, and what it means to embrace change.
Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.
In her inspired YA debut, Renée Watson explores the experience of young African-American women navigating the traditions and expectations of their culture.
Review: This Side of Home is a solid debut by Renée Watson. While it shares many of the same tropes as other coming-of-age stories, the execution is what sets this book apart. Watson does a commendable job of painting a community in transition as gentrification drives old residents out and changes narrator Maya’s world in both obvious and subtle ways. Watching Maya and her neighborhood as they handled—or didn’t handle—the tumult made for a compelling story.
There were many small scenes that sold me on the book, from the observation that a landlord didn’t bother making any improvements/doing any maintenance his (black) tenants had been asking for until he could raise the rent and have wealthier (white) tenants to a conversation between Maya and one of the older residents at a home-turned-coffee shop about the neighborhood’s history or a difficult but good breakup with a boyfriend. This Side of Home is filled with many gems like this, especially when it comes to moments where Maya widens her perspective.
Maya was a fascinating character, and I was particularly moved by watching her reconcile her dreams with reality—and grow up in the process. Her disagreements and fights with her friend, Essence, and her sister, Nikki, provided some great conflict, especially since each side in the arguments tended to be right about different points. I was less enthused about Maya’s constant conflict with Principal Green and some of her fellow students, but the obstacles the principal threw in her way sparked some of my favorite scenes, like the boycott of the Tastes of the World event or the poster war.
One of the most interesting—and complicated—storylines was Maya’s relationship with Tony. Romance can be a tricky thing for me, sometimes, but Watson struck a good balance between creating a friendship between them and then making sure neither Maya nor Tony could fully dodge the hard issues in their relationship. (Their conversation about whether or not Maya should apply to other colleges in addition to Spelman was one of my favorites.) Through their relationship, Watson was able to explore topics like racism and privilege without bring the narrative to an abrupt halt.
Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of contemporary books. This Side of Home is a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age story that also manages to tackle important social issues without forgetting to keep its focus on the characters. Maya’s growth comes through questioning the world and the people around her, and while it was often painful, it was also rewarding. I’m looking forward to future books from Renée Watson.