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Review of the Day: A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

The good thing about serving on a book committee is that it helps you to read outside of your comfort zone. The bad thing about serving on a book committee is that it makes you read outside of your comfort zone. It’s funny, but as someone who reads a lot of children’s novels, my instinct is to revert back to my 12-year-old self. A steady diet of fantasy, punctuated by the occasional mystery, and I’d be good to go. But being a grown-up means trying different things all the time. Because wouldn’t you know it, a lot of the time you end up liking the things you try. Take realistic contemporary fiction. I often do read it as part of my day-to-day job, but it isn’t something I’d instinctively select were it not for the recommendations of review journals and trusted fellow librarians. When Lisa Moore Ramée’s A Good Kind of Trouble started raking in the starred professional reviews, I was intrigued. I knew very little about it, but why not give it a go? The description of the book wasn’t doing it any favors, though, saying it would “capture your heart” and was “incredibly special”. There are better, more accurate, ways of putting those terms, even if they’re entirely true. Ms. Ramée has penned a young woman’s social justice awakening. That moment when you cross over from childhood to something that isn’t quite adulthood, but is on the right path. And if along the way the author is able to lead young readers down that same path, all the better.

Shayla doesn’t get into trouble. She pretty much keeps her head down and her lips zipped. And until this year, that was fine for her. She has her two best friends, her family, her good grades, etc. And yeah, her sister Hana is all about protests and Black Lives Matter but that’s just a Hana thing, right? Yet when a public trial of a policeman comes up with a not guilty verdict and Shayla sees a protest firsthand, she starts thinking of ways that she can make a difference. Small ways, naturally, but sometimes something that seems small can make a huge difference.

For good or for ill, this book is already being compared to Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a comic that covers a lot of the same territory, if in a different format. The difference, however, was pretty clear to me from the get-go. Craft’s book is about the self and how it reacts in a world filled with microaggressions. Ramée’s is far more about the world outside of the self. How you have a hard time seeing outside of your own lens and then suddenly it’s like you can’t unsee anything anymore. Shayla’s certainly concerned about school, her friends, her crushes, sports, etc. but there’s this sneaky secondary plot as well involving her older sister and what’s happening in the wider world. When Shayla marches in a protest for the first time, she physically separates herself from a lot of other middle grade heroes and heroines that talk the talk but refuse to walk the walk. The end result is a book that simultaneously separates itself from the pack.

Children’s books have so many jobs to do that saying “they should all do this” or “they should all do that” is ludicrous. Better to just zero in on what a particular book does particularly well. Take Ms. Ramée’s for example. Her book has the unenviable job of making complex social issues, issues that a fair number of adults have been known to scratch their heads over, comprehensible, even self-evident, to kids. For example, there is Shayla and her friends. One friend is Latinx and one is Asian American. Shayla gets a little grief from her sister and some of the girls at school for not hanging out with black friends instead. Now her reaction to this is exactly what you’d expect to find in a middle grade novel. She defends her choices, points out that diversity in friendship is a good thing, and even calls her little group the United Nations. And in most books that would be the end of that little discussion, but if there’s one thing you’ll learn from A Good Kind of Trouble it’s that difficult conversations don’t get dropped simply because they’ve grown inconvenient. There comes a time in this novel when Shayla’s mother talks to her and gives her some advice on why she might want to have some black friends too. She says, “You may find as you get older that there’s something … comfortable, or I don’t know, comforting, in having friends who can relate to things you might be going through.” The talk makes it clear that her mother is happy for Shayla to keep her friends, but also that she should leave herself open to other possibilities as well. And, later, Shayla herself realizes that it would be nice to have, “A friend who knew being black meant all sorts of things.” That’s the kind of nuance you only get in the best books for kids.

Did I mention at any point here that the book’s fun? And weirdly satisfying in all sorts of ways? There is a moment late in the game when Shayla’s mother gives one of the book’s antagonists a tongue lashing that you just want to read and reread a couple times for the sheer pleasure of witnessing JUSTICE. And when Shayla is then made to apologize to her oppressor she remembers a bit of advice from her father that is one of the wisest lines I’ve read in a while. “Don’t ever leave your enemies empty-handed. Give them a bone to gnaw on or they will keep on trying to bite you.” This is all followed not long thereafter by a pretty darn satisfying ending. The kind where things aren’t perfect but they’re better and our heroine has certainly learned a fair amount about herself, on top of the world around her.

The only part of the book that didn’t gel for me was the subplot with Tyler. He’s a boy in Shayla’s class that has a crush on her, a feeling that is not reciprocated in the least. As a reader, you’re supposed to come to the realization that Shayla’s being unfair to the kid and should be nicer to him. But we’re coming out with this in a post #MeToo era and Tyler seriously steps over some major boundaries in this book. Even before he kisses her (something she confronts him about in time, which is good) he’s physically getting all up in her space. So when Yolanda tells Shayla she should be nicer to him, I wanted someone to back Shayla up, pointing out that the guy has to learn about personal space and pronto. I had visions of older Tyler stalking some girl saying, “Hey! I’m a nice guy!” echoing Yolanda’s statement, but in a twisted way.

I wonder what percentage of kids today has been to protests at some point in their young lives? Certainly it must be higher than I was a child. The idea of protesting something has long since lost its rarity, but I can understand how difficult it would be to work one naturally into a middle grade novel. Folks are sometimes referring to this book as a younger version of The Hate U Give. Maybe, but I worry that kind of designation doesn’t really give credit to what Ramée has put together here. She’s taken the complexity of the real world, with all its police shootings and racism and destructive tendencies and made it personal for young readers. I don’t care what kid you hand this book to. Every single one of them will understand what’s going on here and, maybe, what’s going on in the wider world. The new required reading.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: I wish I knew who put this together. It’s exceedingly clever. It would be easy to miss the black armband and raised fist pin on her backpack. Once you see them, however, you don’t unsee them. The flowered pink of the backpack contrasted with the seriousness of the pin and armband is the kind of contrast that leaves you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

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