Book Review: Orangeboy

Title: Orangeboy
Author: Patrice Lawrence
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 432 pages
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Through Amazon UK

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Marlon has promised his widowed mum that he’ll be good, and nothing like his gang-leader brother Andre. It’s easy when you keep yourself to yourself, listening to your dead dad’s Earth, Wind and Fire albums and watching sci-fi. But everything changes when Marlon’s first date with the beautiful Sonya ends in tragedy; he becomes a hunted man and he has no idea why. With his dad dead and his brother helpless, Marlon has little choice but to enter Andre’s old world of guns, knives and drug runs in order to uncover the truth and protect those close to him. It’s time to fight to be the last man standing.

Review: I first heard of Patrice Lawrence’s award winning book through an article I received in an email. I saw that it was published only in the UK and since I was spending the summer in London, I made the decision to purchase the book. As the US exports more authors than we import, I was excited to read a YA book from a British author of color and to see the subtle differences between American and British culture. I was not disappointed. I had fun being able to have a visual reference to some of the locations mentioned in the book, and reveled in learning the differences in American and British colloquial language. For example, there was a character description that I was initially confused by. Marlon describes a character with “cane row” and at first I thought it was clothing. Then I realized he was describing hair style and when I googled “cane row” pictures of people with what us Americans call “corn row” came up. It’s these subtle differences that make reading a book from outside the US enjoyable and open us readers to new experiences.

The story itself was a bit slow to get started but once the mystery began to slowly reveal itself and Marlon worked to solve it, then the story really got going. Especially because Marlon made so many stupid mistakes – and I say that in the best way. Marlon is a great character because he is so out of his element in trying to solve the mystery of why he and his family is being harassed/threatened/stalked. He is a sweet hearted geeky kid who learned from his brother’s mistakes and made sure to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately trouble found him, but through it all he was adamant about standing up for himself and his family which made me really love him. However, it was also what made me so frustrated by him because he was way over his head and kept making dumb decisions as instead of getting help he chose to figure everything out on his own. I so wanted to scream at him “tell the police!”, but in reality he couldn’t trust the police either because they just saw him as the brother of a former gangster. Marlon truly was in a tough position and did the best he could with the knowledge he had which was very true to life and really made me connect with Marlon. He was the hero of his story but it wasn’t easy and Marlon had more losses than wins, but ultimately learns what he is capable of.

I have an issue with absent parents in YA, so I loved that Marlon’s mom was involved in his life, or rather at least tried to be. Their relationship was very typical mother/son as it was clear that they were close but with that tiny bit of strained because teenagers have the desire to keep things to themselves and are beginning to push boundaries. I also loved that his mom was a clear advocate for her son which showed the love she had for him and why Marlon wanted so badly to protect his mom in return. Even though his father had been dead a number of years, from an illness, us readers were given a sense of the relationship Marlon had with him as well and the loving relationship his parents had. I loved that Marlon was able to remember his parents relationship and how it shaped the person he became. Marlon also had a very strained relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, Jonathan, but it was clear that Jonathan was trying to help be a parent with Marlon’s mom, but also knew his boundaries. The parent/child dynamics that Lawrence wrote was very real and true to the novel.

Overall I really enjoyed Orangeboy and I want to read other books by Lawrence now (she actually has a new one out!). Additionally, I want to read books by other authors of color from across the pond, so if you know of any please share in the comments below.

Recommendation: Get It Now. FYI… Americans can order books from Amazon UK, yay!

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Book Review: Saints and Misfits

Title: Saints and Misfits
Author: S. K. Ali
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352 pages
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight knit Muslim community think of her then?

Review: There is so much I can say about Saints and Misfits that I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess at the beginning, which is when we meet the monster in Janna’s life. The moment we met the monster was so unexpected and a hit to the gut. I don’t think I can recall any books where the author puts a traumatic event for the character in the second chapter, but I loved it because it made me realize that Saints and Misfits was a much deeper novel than I anticipated and that it was going to take me on one hell of a journey. The novel moves at a wonderful pace from there as Janna tries to make sense of what happened, while dealing with a member of her community that everyone loves and respects, but Janna is traumatized by. At the same time, she is trying to figure out her feelings towards Jeremy, who actually might like her back. This internal conflict is at the heart of the novel and felt real. Janna is surrounded by family and friends, but holds these two secrets (well one friend knows about Jeremy), thinking she can handle them both, when in reality she can’t, because Jeremy and the monster are friends. Janna often goes from having the good butterflies in her stomach when seeing Jeremy to becoming nauseous when seeing the monster a minute later, but is unable to speak on her feelings to friends and family. Janna is surrounded by love, but at the same time, feels like she cannot express her true self, her true feelings, and feels trapped like so many young women do. I truly felt for her in those moments.

I’ve mentioned that Janna is surrounded by numerous people who love her and that is also an element I loved in the book. I often find in many YA novels that the protagonist is somewhat excluded from their community and/or doesn’t have a good support network. This was not the case in Saints & Misfits. While Janna’s parents are divorced, it’s clear her parents love her in their own way, her brother is working hard to reconnect with her after being away at school, she has a beautiful relationship with her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram, her uncle who is the imam of her mosque, and her two best friends Tats and Fizz. She eventually develops friendships with two female characters, Sarah and Sausun, who are polar opposites, but combined provide Janna the support she needs and ultimately help her find her voice. The fact that Janna is surrounded by such a loving community, while holding her secrets, creates a deeply moving conflict in the novel. It highlights how our community can be a source of strife for people, but at the same time be a place that helps us only if we let it – if we trust others and let them in. It is a beautiful lesson that Janna learns because she believes she is a misfit who doesn’t fit into her community, not realizing that her community does accept her for the way she is. This belief is a common one that many teens have has they search for their identity and Janna’s story is one that will connect with a lot of readers. It’s a beautifully written story that will make readers laugh, cry, and feel like they are part of Janna’s community. In fact, when the novel was over I wasn’t actually ready to leave Janna’s world. I wanted to see where Janna’s growth will take her.

Lastly, I gotta speak about all the kick-ass female characters in this novel. All of them represent the broad spectrum of beliefs/views that women have. They don’t all agree but are respective of each other to accept each other as who they are. With the exception of Janna and Fizz’s argument that ultimately seems to end their friendship, many of the important women in Janna’s life work to lift each other up. Tats is a true friend to Janna, and even though Janna is slow to warm up to Sarah and Sausun, she eventually comes to rely on the older girls for support and advice. Like many teenagers, Janna’s relationship with her mother is a bit strained, but again Janna comes to realize that a lot of her mother’s actions come from a place of love and she learns to be a full recipient of that love. All of these relationships are complex but very real and I loved reading a book that had so many wonderful female relationships.

Saints and Misfits is a wonderful debut novel by S.K. Ali and I can’t wait to read whatever she has coming next.

Recommendation: Buy it Now!

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Need Some Romance?

One of the ARC’s I received at the LA Times Book Festival was Sarah Dessen’s new book. My friend is a big fan of her books, but I had never read anything by her so I decided to give the book a try. I found the book to be kinda bland and the romance was predictable, however I know that teenage me would have loved it. When I was a teenager I loved reading all sorts of romance novels rooting for the couple to beat whatever obstacles they were up against. I got lost in the fantasy of falling in love with your soulmate and riding off into the proverbial sunset. When I was a teen, however, there was not much diversity in YA contemporary romance, so I definitely missed seeing myself as the heroine/love interest. Times have changed, but not by much. While there are more YA romances with characters of color, the number of novels actually published is still very dismal compared to the number of romances featuring white couples. And, as a proponent of Black Love, I could barely think of any romances that focused on Black love or even Latinx love. I found that most titles were interracial couples (not that there is anything wrong with that), but that is an examination for another time. What I want to do is highlight some YA romance that I’ve read and loved, and that you should read too. Also, if there is a title that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments below.

*PS I would have included “When Dimple Met Rishi” but since we just discussed it just last week, read our discussion to learn what we all thought of the book. When Dimple Met Rishi Discussion

PPS A few months ago I did a post about adaptations of Romeo & Juliet. Check out that list for more romance titles. Romeo & Juliet 2,0: Reflecting Our World.

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (Really the entire series)

Lara Jean’s love life gets complicated in this New York Times bestselling “lovely, lighthearted romance” from the New York Times bestselling author of The Summer I Turned Pretty series.

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Maria McLemore

For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brackenburgh

Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured—a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget.

The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
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Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart

Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Genres: Contemporary Romance
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After hooking up with the most racist boy in school and telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman’s explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.

Review: After hearing so many great things about Karim’s new novel I was really looking forward to it. It was #ownvoices and had numerous Muslim characters in a contemporary romance, which is sorely needed in the world of YA literature. Unfortunately, I came away with a “meh” kind of feeling with this book. It took me a long while to get into it and connect with the main character Shabnam Qureshi. There was something about her that I just didn’t like. Some of her comments really rubbed me the wrong way, specifically about her weight, which I felt could be triggering to folks. Additionally, she was a little too crazy over Jaime, which is what I just realized I didn’t like about her. When I was in high school, boy-crazy girls drove me batty and that is why I didn’t connect with Shabnam. She is a character of contradictions, however, because even though she is very selfish, she does work to understand her father and help him to become a more active participant in their relationship and the relationship with her mother. The father-daughter moments in the novel were truly sweet and moving.

I feel like the “romance” of the novel was less about Jaime and Shabnam and more about the relationship between Shabnam and Farah. At the beginning of the novel the two are estranged from each other with Shabnam missing her best friend terribly. And I can see why as Farah seems to be Shabnam’s total opposite. Where Shabnam is unsure of herself, Farah is confidence personified. Where Shabnam hesitates to speak her mind, Farah doesn’t hold back. Their home lives are opposites as well as Shabnam is an only child whose parents are in a somewhat happy marriage where as Farah is the oldest of four (If I remember correctly) and her parents are constantly at odds. Even though the novel begins with Shabnam and Farah apart from each other, we are given flashbacks of how their friendship developed. These were two girls who connected over not fitting in, even though they were so different, and ended up dependent upon each other. And that desire for her best friend is why Shabnam chose to re-connected with Farah; she wanted to share her happiness about Jamie. I felt Shabnam was quite selfish for only going to her friend then, but ultimately the girls have a heart to heart and get to the bottom of why their friendship fell apart. It was a moving moment and one that I loved because after Shabnam’s time at the pie shack is over, there are an number of pages left to the book and most focus on Shabnam and Farah rekindling their friendship. Shabnam’s character development is due to her coming to accept Farah for who she is now and that even though her best friend is wearing a hajib, she is still the same complex being before she decided to wear the hajib. Shabnam learns to love her friend for who she is and comes to truly appreciate her relationship with Farah.

The touching relationships Shabnam had with her father and Farah, however, were not enough to make me fall in love with this book. I felt that Jaime was extremely two dimensional, almost a stereotype of the carefree white boy who visits and works with his aunt during the summer. I truly did not see what Shabnam saw that made her fall head over heels in love with him. I didn’t feel any heat or passion that I should expect from a contemporary romance. Jaime and Shabnam’s romance was just kind of blah. There was no rooting for their HEA; in fact, I was waiting for them to break up because that meant that Jaime would be off the page. Clearly, the opposite reaction a romance novel is aiming for. Though, if the point of the romance was the friendship between Shabnam and Farah, then mission accomplished.

 

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Comic Review: Niobe: She is Life

Title: Niobe: She is Life
Author: Amandla Stenberg, Sebastian A. Jones, Art by Ashley A. Woods
Genres:  Comic Book, Fantasy
Pages: 35 pages each
Publisher: Stranger Comics
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: “What becomes of the child who has lost her spirit?”

NIOBE: She is Life is a coming of age tale of love, betrayal, and ultimate sacrifice. Niobe Ayutami is an orphaned wild elf teenager and also the would-be savior of the vast and volatile fantasy world of Asunda. She is running from a past where the Devil himself would see her damned… toward an epic future that patiently waits for her to bind nations against the hordes of hell. The weight of prophecy is heavy upon her shoulders and the wolf is close on her heels.

Review: Before I get into my review, I have to say that the Niobe: She is Life series is the first ever comic book I have ever purchased. I’ve read graphic novel adaptations of books, but never a comic book series and I was unsure of what to expect. That being said, I wonder if some of my feeling of “incompleteness” has to do with the storytelling structure of comics, or with the series itself. Therefore, I’m glad that I chose to buy the entire 4 book series instead of just the first issue, as I got a deeper understanding of the story with each subsequent issue.

Niobe: She is Life drops the reader in the middle of the story as Niobe is literally running for her life. We gather that she’s running away from her father, and that she wants to kill him, but we don’t know why. Intriguing way to start a story, definitely, with the hope that the rest of the series will fill in the blanks. It somewhat does, but also introduces some ideas that make the story a bit confusing. The comic takes place in a fantasy world called Asunda that is filled with all sorts of different humanoid species such as elves, dwarfs, orcs, mythological beings, and gods and goddesses. I was unsure how all the beings related to each other in the world as there was clearly tension between the young men of the monastery that Niobe finds herself in, however the series did hint at some war between the Orcs and the Elves that I wasn’t too sure was over or was still being fought, and this monastery was some sort of oasis for young people without a home. I feel like I would have love to receive a bit more world-building to the series to fully understand the mythology of the world, the different civilizations/peoples that exist in the world and how they all coexist amongst each other. Niobe is often called “She tribe” and aside from her being a young woman, I wasn’t exactly too sure why the young men called her that. Is that how all Elvish young women are called? Small details such as that, which I can understand might be hard to do in a comic series, would have helped with my enjoyment of the series. All of that said, I still did enjoy the series. The writing and storytelling got stronger with each subsequent issue and by the end I was truly rooting for Niobe.

Niobe is a quiet, but headstrong character who is discovering who she really is and what role she plays in the world. Because of her lineage, she is half-Elvish half something to be determined, she hated but at the same time feared. She is willing to stand up for what is right and is a fierce warrior. When Niobe finally accepts her destiny and gives in to her power, it is truly a great moment with a wonderful unexpected twist that I as totally here for. I loved seeing the main character, a woman of color, fully become and own being the hero to save the day. She is a character that fantasy comics so desperately needed so I’m glad that Stranger Comics decided to publish this series.

Lastly, I must mention the artwork..it is absolutely stunning. The colors are bright and rich which visually brings the world of Asunda to life. Not only is Niobe an intriguing story, the series is also a work of art. Ashley A Woods whose depictions of all the different types of people, their costumes, the animals, the deities, etc, are so detailed and beautiful that it makes the world very real. Woods artwork gives Asunda a mystical quality, almost, as there are many scenes where her brush strokes makes the reader feel as if we are looking at an old world before time.

Recommendation: Overall I enjoyed the series and am looking forward to the sequel that is to come. I will definitely by the next series. And if you want to support WofC authors and artists creating powerful heroines, then go out and buy this comic (buy all 4 issues!)

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Group Discussion: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.


K. Imani: The title comes from a quote by Tupac who said Thug Life stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*** Everybody.” I had never heard that quote before and found it very interesting. As the novel progressed and the meaning of Thug Life became more and more evident, I found it to be extremely profound. And a true statement of our times, especially since the election there has been a rise in hate crimes. Children of color are bearing witness to hate against them and I can only imagine what will happen when they come of age and discover the power of their voice like Starr does.

Crystal: I too hadn’t heard of this particular quote, but it resonated with me. It made me think of the many ways that Black children are seeing and experiencing hate in our country. Tupac had some wisdom there. It only seems logical that sowing hate will bring negatives for everybody.

Audrey: It was also my first time hearing that quote, but it is a powerful sentiment and a perfect distillation of the themes in THUG. I loved how it kept coming back into the story and how Starr’s relationship to it changed as she watched the fallout of Khalil’s murder in her family, her community, and the surrounding city. The hate played out differently across the characters, but there was no question that it made things worse for everyone all around.

K. Imani: One aspect of the novel I loved is that Starr had a relationship with her parents. We learn early that her parents are very frank with her, specifically having given her “The Talk” (not the sex talk, the one all Black kids get about dealing with the police) at a young age, and even shows when her 8 year old brother receives The Talk. It is because of this talk/relationship with her parents that Starr initially stays relatively calm when she and Khalil are pulled over. I like how Thomas revealed the different parts of The Talk by having her think of her father’s words as she encountered the hostile police officer. I know many Black folk who go through the same process when pulled over, especially these days when one never knows how their encounter will end up. I think we’re all Starr in that moment.

Jessica: Speaking of The Talk – I didn’t notice until later in the book that even though Starr did everything “right” when she and Khalil were pulled over, just like her parents told her, it wasn’t enough. The policeman pointed his gun at her as well. She points that out to her parents, and they understood instantly. So many people question who Khalil was, whether he had it coming, and so on, but Starr’s parents are steadfast in their understanding of the reality of the situation – that nothing justified his killing.

Crystal: I really appreciated the adults in the story and the relationships Starr had with them. Starr’s parents showed that they loved their children and were going to hold them to high standards because of that love. Their rules and consequences are reasoned decisions based on love and a desire to do what’s best for their kids. The humor and respect they show sure add another great element too. They had a beautiful relationship they were sharing and modeling for their kids. It was also good to see Starr’s uncle and his role in her life. It added another layer to the story to see how he had stepped in for her family when she was young and to see events from a Black police officer’s perspective.

Audrey: I loved Starr’s parents. Thomas gave me a glimpse through them–and Starr’s reactions to them and their advice–about what other people’s experiences are in America. It was heartbreaking when her little brother got pulled aside for The Talk, but I appreciated seeing that their parents had to make that call not because any eight-year-old is an actual threat to anyone but because we live in a world where they, as good parents, must give their children as much information and advice as they can to help keep them safe. Starr going through The Talk in her head when she and Khalil got pulled over made me very aware of all the small things that could–and did–go wrong. And it made the second awful encounter with the police later on all the more terrifying because of the possibility it could happen again.

There were a lot of good adults in Starr’s world, and I appreciated how Thomas took the time to demonstrate how they could have different perspectives and disagreements about how things should play out. They could fight with one another and still be united in the desire to do what was best for their families and communities. It was wonderful to see that depth and breadth in the characters.

K. Imani: Yes, I so agree with you Audrey. A common YA trope is to have absent parents & adults, so I’m glad that Thomas filled the novel with with so many important and loving examples of parent/child, uncle/niece, sibling, in-law relationships. All of them really showed how inter-connected many families, and communities, truly are and that when one hurts, the entire family hurts.

K. Imani: Another theme that was so strong in T.H.U.G is the concept of code switching that Blacks who move in primarily White spaces have. As one who grew up usually one of the few Black children in school, I fully connected with Starr here. She states, “That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do.” This duality that many Black people live with is exhausting, but not really talked about. I felt like being with Starr as she struggles to maintain “Williamson Starr” while dealing with her grief, her PTSD, and the tension in the community from Khalil’s death was an original way to show the inner turmoil many Black people experience from having to code switch.

Audrey: As a biracial Latina who wasn’t taught Spanish and grew up speaking like the white side of my family, I don’t have personal experience in code-switching, but I was exhausted for Starr as she had to flip the switch back and forth repeatedly. It took so much effort for her to maintain “Williamson Starr” while at school or around her school friends. Her repeated reminders to herself about not wanting to come across as the Sassy/Angry Black Woman or as “ghetto” made me upset and angry on her behalf–and was a potent reminder about how damaging stereotypes are. Starr struggled with her PTSD and grief and conflicts with her community, but she had to bottle so much of it up in the Williamson Starr side of her life because she didn’t want to mess up the image of herself she had built there. How much better off would Starr have been if she felt free to fully express herself at Williamson?

K. Imani: A few years ago I taught an article about PTSD in children who experience violence and I think exploring Starr’s PTSD from seeing the murder of her friend, especially at the hand of a policeman, reminds me of it. The article explains that children who experience trauma, who see family and friends murdered, experience PTSD at almost the same rate as war veterans. I’m so glad that Thomas has Starr experience PTSD, triggered whenever she’s around police officers, because witnessing Khalil’s murder is so traumatic. The way Starr’s PTSD manifest felt very real and true to life.

Audrey: I’m glad that Thomas included Starr’s PTSD and demonstrated all the ways it was present in her life. Too often mental health issues are swept under the rug for minority communities, and it’s important to see characters who deal with them. Especially a black teenage girl, since stereotypes about black woman frequently center on very specific types of “strength” that don’t allow for mental illness or emotional vulnerability. The PTSD seemed to be handled well to me, but I would love to read a review of T.H.U.G. from a black reviewer who has PTSD to get their thoughts.

Jessica: Ditto what Audrey said regarding reviews.

K. Imani: Let’s talk about Starr’s and Chris’s relationship, specifically how it was presented and the inner conflict Starr felt about having the relationship. Having Starr be in an interracial relationship truly added another layer to the narrative of THUG, and one that is often not addressed much in stories where interracial relationships exists. The challenges the couples face are usually very surface, but Starr deals with some serious identity issues because of their relationship, and trust issues, especially after Khalil’s murder.

Audrey: I really appreciated how Thomas didn’t shy away from showing some of the conflicts of interracial relationships. (My family has some nasty stories about future in-laws flipping out when they found out who their children had fallen in love with.) The struggles Starr faced through the book as she reexamined her relationship with Chris demonstrated how difficult forging and maintaining that kind of relationship could be. It was also an excellent contrast to Starr’s friendship with Hailey, who refused to believe she could be wrong or that Starr’s POV and feelings and experiences were valid.

Crystal: Starr felt comfortable with Chris because she could be herself with him. She didn’t do as much code switching with him as with the others at her school. She still kept many things hidden from him though. Thomas really did a great job showing Starr’s decision making there and letting readers know that these decisions weren’t made lightly. Chris and Starr have a lot to work through beyond the typical dating issues that come up between teens. Some of their conversations around race show that even Chris is operating under some biases though he is open to learning.

K. Imani: I agree with you Crystal that Thomas did an excellent job of making Starr and Chris’s relationship complex and that the decisions they make apart and together are done with careful thought. It is clear that there is mutual respect and love for each other based on their personalities and mutual likes.

Audrey: One of the small things later in the book that made me really happy was how Maya and Starr formed a “minority alliance” and promised each other that they wouldn’t let Hailey get away with saying any more racist stuff to them again. That moment of self-reflection from Starr, about how she needed to have a voice and stand up for others, too, was wonderful, especially since both she and Maya followed up on their pledge to back each other up. It was great to watch them come together and be allies for each other.

K. Imani: That moment! I almost forgot about that, this novel has so much. I’m, again, thankful for the way Thomas chose to write Hailey because a lot of people think racists are the evil mustache-twirly villains of old, and not realize that they harbor their own racist beliefs until they are called on it. Hailey is a character that I think will make folks uncomfortable but also be able to use her antics to take a good look at themselves and make a change. I was proud of the girls banding together and standing up to her because they realized they were also part of the problem, but now by having each others back they can invite change.

Jessica: Just a sidenote… was super psyched to see that Maya was Taiwanese! And the little details about her that were linked to being Taiwanese – spending breaks in Taipei, her last name, etc.

Getting back to the topic, I’m struck by how many threads were running through the book – the different family and friend dynamics, neighborhood life, the protests, coping with trauma, and relationships. There is so much going on, but it all links together and just fits. Sometimes, I think books will try to tackle current events and topics, and will struggle to make everything work in a way that doesn’t sound like an after-school special, but THUG succeeds where an awful lot of other books flounder.

I know THUG hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list (woo!), is getting a movie, and is basically enjoying some well-deserved success. Given that it’s on the path to being the next “everyone and their mother is reading this book” kind of novel, I’m definitely curious to see how people directly involved in the organizing (and leading? I guess ‘leaders’ is kind of a false concept in grassroots movements) of the Black Lives Matter movement react to this book. Or maybe they’ve already read this book, and I just haven’t dug into the reception of THUG enough.

Also, I’m way excited for Book 2! Aaaah!

Crystal: I had to go verify this second book you mention. Yes! In a recent interview, A.C. Thomas implies that it’s more of a companion book set in the future a bit, but still, I too am super excited to read more.

K. Imani: What? There is a second book? Woo-hoo!!! Thanks Crystal for the link to the article. I’m sure everyone who has read “The Hate U Give” or has yet to read it (what are you waiting for) is excited to hear that news! Clearly we all loved “The Hate U Give” , now tell us what you thought of Thomas’s best selling debut novel.

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