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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.

American StreetAmerican Street, Ibi Zoboi
Balzer + Bray, February 2017
Reviewed from ARC, 5 stars

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.

Piecing Me TogetherPiecing Me Together, Reneé Watson
Bloomsbury, February 2017
Reviewed from ARC, 4 stars

“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.


  1. I, too, had trouble with American Street. In fact, I didn’t finish it. Life is too short to read books that feel like torture to read. I hope someone on this conversation thread can talk us into understanding what is good about the book.

  2. Barbara Moon says

    I read both some time ago. I recall the emotional impact of American Street. I was intrigued by the theme of collage in Pieces of Me i.e. viewing selected parts vs stepping back to view the whole.
    While I appreciated both books, I read a third book at about the same time which blew me away: One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes is incredible. It’s probably not eligible but of that trio it was by far the strongest for me in terms of writing, theme, voice.

  3. I haven’t had a chance to pick up Piecing Me Together but I have heard good things from coworkers and have been happy to have it in my wheelhouse to recommend to teens at my library.

    American Street dazzled me when I read it (as Zoboi did herself when I heard her talking a bit about the book at a publisher preview) and I’m thrilled to see this book getting attention from the NBA committee. (At its release it had seemed like the book wasn’t getting a lot of mainstream recognition or buzz which obviously has evened out now.) While I remember loving this story and adore Fabiola as a narrator and protagonist, I did have to go back to my own review to get back to specifics:

    This novel is the story of one girl’s efforts to grab onto the American dream for herself and her mother, it’s the story of a family and the secrets they keep to survive, it’s a story about the immigrant experience, it’s a story of first love. All of these stories play out against the larger story of the house at the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit. I appreciated the narrative shifts to highlight that while this story centers Fabiola–it isn’t a story entirely unique to her because everyone is trying to belong to something and striving to succeed at something.

    I’m not familiar with a lot of vodou but I thought it was great to have Fabiola’s faith be a big part of the story and help her contextualize her experiences too when usually that’s something we see more from a monotheistic perspective in books. Throughout American Street Fabiola uses her familiarity with Vodou and her iwas–spirit guides–to make sense of her new life in America. Fabiola’s choice to interpret her strange new world in this way takes on a weightier meaning when she begins to see her iwas in the real life figures around her. I know that didn’t work for some readers but I liked the push and pull between whether the iwas were real or something in Fabiola’s head.

    American Street is a timely and thoughtfully written novel. Fabiola’s introduction to America is authentic and filled with moments of beauty as she also finds new friends and falls in love for the first time. The happenings on the corner of American Street and Joy Road add a mystery to this rich plot and help the story unfold to a heartening but bittersweet conclusion.

    By far though the best part of this novel for me was the voice. Zoboi demonstrates a considerable ear for voice with dialog as well as short segments between chapters in which various characters relate the stories that brought them to this point. Fabiola’s first person narration in the rest of the novel is beautiful with a measured cadence and a unique perspective that comes from spending her formative years in Haiti. It’s interesting to hear that some people didn’t connect with Fabiola because as soon as I started reading her narration I was completely drawn into the story.

  4. I too struggled with this book. I thought that it was just okay and not necessarily a stand out.
    I think Zoboi sacrificed her story with instalove and character tropes as opposed to focusing on something new such as the fish out of water theme, the guy on the corner, and the history/curse of the house.

    Her love interest was too fast and I felt like he was a means to an end rather than an integral part of the story. I knew immediately what was going to happen when he was introduced and in my opinion, predictability is a story killer. The sisters did not have unique voices and instead of developing a dynamic relationship with Pri, we just see this aggressive girl. Donna could have been an interesting conversation about black women and hair (weave vs. natural). Donna puts all this weave in Fab’s hair which can be seen as very American, yet Fab has no inner monologue about it-missed opportunity even though it would have been small. Chantal (?) had an interesting backstory; she could have gone to ivy league college yet she stayed and although we know why, it could have been better explored.

    Dray could have been a complicated character but we don’t find that out until the end. I wish his development could have gone farther than the womanizing drug dealer trope.

    I too didn’t connect with Fab because the story begins with this sensitive somewhat meek girl and almost immediately she’s entering gang locations, sitting alone in cars with knows gang members, and setting her cousin’s up. I understand that the love for a parent can make one do drastic things but the transition was so quick, it made Fabiola an uneven character.

    The writing at times was manipulative and not organic. I already mentioned the love interest and how he was used to set up the ending. I never once believed their love. Another manipulation was when Imani got in the car knowing it was going to end badly. Sure enough there’s a picture of her and Dray and Donna looses it. As a reader, I shouldn’t see the set up; it should happen organically. Although this was small it bothered me that Donna knew Dray was a cheater and he beat her but the dealbreaker was when he cheated with a white girl-not cool.

    I liked the inclusion of Fab’s religion and the history of the street/house and the fact that she’s technically American yet she’s never lived here and the comparisons to her new neighborhood versus Haiti. I just wished all of the above was the focus and not the fighting over men and being mean to other girls for survival. I know that’s real life and I liked that they explained their behavior but I feel like that wasn’t enough. This book was too predictable and the characters/voice was not new or special.

    I wanted to like it but I didn’t.

  5. Karyn Silverman says

    My response to American Street was similar to Joy’s, sadly — I REALLY wanted to read this, especially after hearing the author speak about the book at a publisher preview. And I’m putting a lot of blame on the packaging, which led me to expect that this was a book about how Fabiola would lose her mother and fight to get her back. So as I was reading, I kept waiting for THAT story, which isn’t actually this book, which meant that I was thrown off by not reading the book I thought I was reading, which in turn meant I never found my groove with this one.
    (Bad flap copy is such a disservice to books, and this year has at least two spectacular examples.)
    That said, I thought the treatment of Fab’s religion and the almost American Gods-like presence of Papa Legba on the corner was brilliant, and hands down my favorite aspect of the novel. I’m looking forward to seeing what Zoboi does next, and hoping for something more magic realism than gritty realism.

  6. Emily Bredberg says

    I just finished the audiobook for American Street a few days ago. I am not sure it will pass some of my other favorites this year as a Printz contender, but I do want to add that the audio narration was fabulous. In fact, I am not sure I would have been so thoroughly immersed without the audio. Obviously the audio version doesn’t affect Printz consideration, but for anyone looking for a different way to approach the book, I recommend giving it a look.

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