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Fish out of water
A lot of young adult literature is about teens in unfamiliar situations and places. Sometimes the differences they experience are socio-economic, sometimes they’re cultural, and sometimes they’re magical. Fish out of water tales are usually easily relatable, regardless of the specificity, because most people can remember how they felt the first time they encountered something that was wholly outside of their lived experience up to that point.
Two February books—American Street and Piecing Me Together—have black teen girls narrating their lives in first person. Both have received lots of critical praise with five and four stars, respectively. More significantly, and the reason why they’re paired together, both books are by black women writing deeply emotional stories that their voices imbue with authenticity and integrity.
Sometimes, you know a book isn’t for you for no tangible reason at all. You can’t point to any significant flaws, or distasteful elements; it’s simply not your thing. For me, that book is American Street. And I desperately want to know what I’m missing, because it’s got five stars and is a National Book Award finalist. These are important accolades and frankly, I’d be surprised if Zoboi wasn’t also a Morris finalist come January.
In situations like these, my instinct is to try to figure out what I’m not seeing or perhaps, what I’m overlooking about the writing. For me, the plot and themes were overwhelming by spreading out in so many directions. However, I know that other people saw that as multi-layered complexity. While I never connected with Fabiola, other readers find a compelling narrator. As I’ve examined my thoughts recently on this book I’ve started to realize that the lack of connection to Fabiola kept me from the emotional impact that the book had on others. Without a doubt, this story deals with a lot of important, timely, and resonant issues, which for many readers will be what they admire. I could never adjust from what seemed to be an abrupt switch of focus from Fabiola’s mother to settling into her life in Detroit and because that transition wasn’t smooth for me, the rest of the novel never really hit.
Like I said above though, I know this one is beloved and will certainly be in the conversation in the months to come. So make your arguments in the comments. I’d like to revisit this text again before the awards in January and looking with fresh eyes and solid arguments in mind is what this is all about.
“Why can’t we talk about how unfair it is that at St. Francis, people who like you get signed up for programs that take them to Costa Rica, and people who look like me get signed up for programs that take them downtown?”
The heart Reneé Watson’s novel is Jade. One of a handful of black teens attending St. Francis, a school where she’s far from home geographically and culturally. The quote above is a moment when Jade challenges her white friend, Sam, to stop denying the race-based discrimination that she lives every day. Sam isn’t racist but she’s uncomfortable with conversations about race, and her default reaction is to downplay or defend things that hurt or bother Jade. I’ve lived this situation more times than I care to think about. Watson captures the frustration tinged with sadness one can feel when all you want it to be heard by the people you care about. Jade isn’t looking for answers, an apology, or explanations; she wants her friend to listen and accept her experiences.
Jade wants, and rightfully needs, a lot from some people in her life who aren’t always great at being there for her. Her mentor in an empowerment program for young black women is flaky and struggling with her own issues, and her school and teachers see her as a girl from the poor part of town who needs help, while she longs to be seen as an individual with gifts and skills to develop. This is the central conflict and storyline for Jade: learning how to be true to herself in a world that wants to put her in a box before she even knows who she is.
Watson’s short chapters read like vignettes even when scenes naturally follow after preceding events. Her description of details is restrained, which adds to the vignette style. Occasionally, her prose seems to lean more into poetry than prose but I have to admit that I’m the last person who should assess poetry so I couldn’t tell you if it’s good or not. Where I’m sure the writing is less successful is in the execution of themes. All of the cards are on the table from the beginning; there is no subtext here, only text. Watson tackles important themes: race, class, friendship, love, police violence, what it means to be an artist; but her characters, including and most especially Jade, are constantly telling the reader exactly what that issue is all about. Despite the book’s other positives, the book’s themes are so crucial to its essence, I can’t see this making it far into a RealCommittee conversation when it’s also the weakest element.
What do you think, shadow committee? I fully accept that other people were blown away by these two–books don’t earn four or five stars by accident–so what is it about them that makes them Printz-worthy?
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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