Regular readers of my blog know I don’t read a whole lot of books aimed at teens. I’ve tried some in the past, with middling success. The ones I tend to like are either books with a social justice angle (think Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give) or something totally out of left field (for me) like a paranormal mystery or fantasy (like Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series.) I often think most of these books just aren’t aimed at me, a middle-aged woman. And that’s totally fine! But I do continue to want to give YA a try, if only so that I can recommend a few every now and then to a library patron. I have recently read two for my 20 Books of Summer list that I enjoyed and wanted to share a few brief thoughts.
Dear Martin by debut author Nic Stone was a fast-paced, engaging story that I read quickly (just over 200 pages.) High school senior Justyce McAllister is near the top of his mostly-white private school student body and heading to Yale University next year. The book opens with an incident where he is trying to help his drunk girlfriend get home from a party and ends up handcuffed for hours by a cop who mistakenly sized up the situation. The incident rattles Justyce and he starts to write “letters” to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to process his emotions and thoughts.
Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong. Yeah, there are no more “colored” water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.
The novel alternates these letters with every day conversations in Justyce’s classes and his regular high school life. Some of his white friends and classmates demonstrate an appalling lack of sensitivity, and some do things that are out-right racist. However, when Justyce and his white classmate SJ start becoming more than friends, Stone doesn’t shy away from writing about how Justyce’s mother would be uncomfortable with him dating a white girl. Later there is another incident with an off-duty police officer that it even more traumatic and serious for Justyce and one of his friends, and it really makes him question everything, including the value of following Dr. King’s non-violent teachings. While I was engaged by the story, I didn’t love it because I found the writing to be lacking in complexity, but perhaps that’s the thing that might make it sing to a 13 or 14 year-old. Stone has delivered a highly relevant and emotionally affecting story that will speak to a lot of young people today. (3 stars.)
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a bit of a departure for me as I don’t normally read much fantasy. But I’m here to say I really liked it! When I do read fantasy I prefer it to be set in a world that’s similar to the real one, with maybe just a few wacky things different. In Shadowshaper, you’ll recognize Older’s portrayal of current-day Brooklyn, NY – except maybe for the murals on buildings that move as if alive and the corpses that become reanimated with evil spirits!
From Goodreads: Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.
The writing was lively and vibrant, sometimes funny, and Sierra felt like a believable character to me. I loved this exchange when she worried over her belly to her best friends before a date:
“What if he doesn’t like my ponch?”
“Your what now?”
“My little belly ponch.” Sierra patted her tummy.
“Oh lord, Sierra, really? Everybody has a little gut, and plenty a’ dudes go crazy for ’em. Stop fretting.”
I also appreciated Older’s handling of the gentrification of Sierra’s friend’s neighborhood:
The place Sierra and Bennie used to get their hair done had turned into a fancy bakery of some kind, and yes, the coffee was good, but you couldn’t get a cup for less than three dollars. Plus, every time Sierra went in, the hip, young white kid behind the counter gave her either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look. The Takeover (as Bennie dubbed it once) had been going on for a few years now, but tonight its pace seemed to have accelerated tenfold. Sierra couldn’t find a single brown face on the block. It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides – as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought.
And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.
This was an exciting, original adventure full of magic, art, and mystery. I ordered the second book in the series, Shadowhouse Fall, from the library and hope to read it in the next few weeks. (4 stars.)
Do you read YA books? If so, have you got some recommendations for ones I shouldn’t miss?
(These are the fourth and fifth books I’ve featured from my 20 Books of Summer list.)