All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What if you couldn’t see war happening around you, but you could hear it, smell it, taste it, and feel it?

What if everything you believed to be wrong, suddenly became right?

Does morality still exist in wartime?

Can kindness survive?

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See explores these poignant questions and more by telling the parallel stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, a blind French girl and young German soldier, respectively, as each struggles to survive the immense horrors of WWII.

After fleeing war-torn Paris, Marie-Laure and her beloved father find refuge at the seaside home of an allusive great-uncle. Marie-Laure can hear the waves crashing just outside the window, and excitedly awaits the day when her father will bring her to feel the sand beneath her toes. After her father leaves town for what is promised to be a short trip and never returns, however, Marie-Laure must for the first time in her life, navigate the world on her own, and in the meantime, discovers she is harboring a dangerous secret.

While Marie-Laure is confined to the walls of Saint-Malo, Werner’s career as a member of Hitler Youth and later, as a Nazi soldier, takes him from a German orphanage across Europe and eventually, to the home of Marie-Laure’s great uncle. As their two journeys collide, Werner faces the moral dilemma of following his heart or obeying his training, leaving the fate of Marie-Laure – and her secret – in his hands.

A masterfully written tale of perseverance, All The Light We Cannot See will have adolescent and adult readers alike considering questions of morality, loyalty, and love, in a truly powerful way that transcends time and space. Oscillating between the perspectives of Marie-Laure and Werner, All The Light We Cannot See would likely fall between the Middle High to High Classification of text complexity within the YA genre from both quantitative and qualitative standpoints. Similar to Glaus’ description of Glimpse in her article, “Text Complexity and YA Literature,” All The Light We Cannot See presents “Mature issues and themes most likely different from those of the common reader… establish[ing] a higher knowledge demand. Because this text displays a complex narrative structure, mature issues… and shifts in chronology, I place it on the ‘high’ level of qualitative text complexity for structure” (412). Unlike Glimpse, however, All The Light We Cannot See does make use of more traditional text features, perhaps making it a slightly more accessible read. While some historical context about WWII and the political climates of France and Germany in the 1940s may be beneficial, extensive background knowledge is by no means required, and a brief overview would adequately equip students as they prepare to begin the novel.

Furthermore, by including the disparate perspectives of Marie-Laure and Werner, All The Light We Cannot See provides students with an array of possible windows and mirrors in which they can see their experiences and others’ represented (Bishop). Specifically, the novel includes representations of the following, among others: male and female leads; persons with disabilities; oppressors and the oppressed; single-parent families; and orphans. In so doing, this excellent piece of historical fiction sheds light on a myriad of situations with authenticity and accuracy, allowing for a diverse and dynamic reader experience.

In conjunction with the several Essential Questions listed at the beginning of this post, All The Light We Cannot See invites the use of many supplemental texts that also pertain to such issues of morality and humanity in the face of conflict. For instance, educators could incorporate additional historical context to provide students with greater background knowledge about WII. Possible resources include documents about the Hitler Youth Movement and maps of Europe in the 1940s. A specific article, originally published in the March 10, 1907 issues of the Washington Times, that may be of interest when teaching All The Light We Cannot See as a whole class text has recently been made available online. It documents the Eiffel Tower’s early use as a wireless broadcasting system, providing details that would likely enhance readers’ understanding of and appreciation for the novel’s repeated discussion of radios. More contemporary additions could be made possible through the use of poetry (for example, Billy Collins’ The History Teacher, which deals with issues of authority and the ways in which history is presented) as well as a variety of current events articles (Marie-Laure’s escape from Paris and the current Syrian refugee crisis offer ample opportunity for comparison).

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr would be an excellent choice for a whole class text at Brown Summer High School because it presents students with gripping storylines that would appeal to an array of reader preferences. Whether interested in romance, war, or suspense, the novel is complex in its structure and content yet approachable, and is sure to engender meaningful dialogue within the classroom and beyond it. Though a fairly long text (530 pages, to be exact), the short nature of its chapters seems to expedite the reading process, and thus need not be viewed as a deterrent. First published in 2014, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See has quickly proven an important and effective addition to the YA genre, and is sure to influence developing readers for many years to come.

By: Mia Rotondi

Full publishing citation: Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York, NY: Scribner, 2017. Print.

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The Terrorist’s Son: A Story Of Choice by Zak Ebrahim

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“I’m so sick of hating people.”

These six words, spoken by his mother, changed Zak Ebrahim’s life forever. The son of an infamous terrorist, Zak’s childhood and adolescence were filled with images of violence and utterances of hatred. By the time Zak turned eighteen, his mother, brother, and sister and he had more than twenty times, and the only relationship he shared with his incarcerated father was through prison visits and recorded collect calls. Whether being beaten by his stepfather at home or bullied at school, an escape seemed nowhere to be found. Rather than turning to violence himself, however, Zak discovered that he had the power to decide his own path, and has since committed his life to speaking out publicly against terrorism and promoting peace.

A story of perseverance and resilience, Zak Ebrahim shows readers that the past need not define the future, and even in the face of extreme hatred, tolerance can prevail. A fluid read that presents the facts of Zak’s reality growing up with an extremist father, The Terrorist’s Son: A Story Of Choice is best suited for the mature YA audience. It is an excellent addition to the genre as it is sure to inspire meaningful dialogue about facing opposition of any kind with openness and nonviolence.

By Mia Rotondi

Ebrahim, Zak, and Jeff Giles. The Terrorist’s Son: A Story Of Choice. New York: Ted Books, 2014. Print.

Sold by Patricia McCormick

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Told in a series of lyrical verses, author Patricia McCormick’s novel, Sold, is the story of a 13-year-old Nepali girl named Lakshmi.  Written from Lakshmi’s point of view, Sold begins by describing Lakshmi’s impoverished yet welcoming family life.  When rain destroys her family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather forces her to take a job to help the family.  A stranger takes her away to India and she soon discovers that the adults she trusted were actually leading her into sexual slavery.  Although trapped in a brothel, tortured, abused, and cheated, Lakshmi still maintained hope amidst the darkness of her existence.

As a reader, you get the chance to see what life in India’s sex trafficking is like.  You get to hear the voice of a strong woman who keeps fighting.  And you get to be whisked into Lakshmi’s world thanks to the beautiful poetry of the novel.  McCormick’s writing style brings you into Lakshmi’s life with vivid descriptions told in sparkling verse.  Once you start reading this book, you won’t want to put it down.  So pick up this book and hear Lakshmi’s voice.  For the sake of all those trapped in sex trafficking.  And for the sake of women everywhere.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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“When we keep talking about

how close the Communists have gotten to Saigon

…Miss Xinh finally says no more.

 

From now on

Fridays

will be for

happy news.

 

No one has anything

to say.”

-“Current News”

 

In 1975, the soldiers and bombs of the Vietnam War reach ten-year-old Hà’s hometown of Saigon. Amidst the raging war, she must leave her home behind and flee to the United States. After settling in Alabama without her friends, her father, or her favorite papaya tree, Hà must learn to navigate an entirely foreign land. Thanhha Lai’s honest account of a Vietnamese refugee makes Inside Out and Back Again an attractive text for high school students.

Lai bases Hà’s story on her own experience as an immigrant-refugee during the Vietnam War. Inside Out and Back Again grapples with ideas about home, belonging, and the ways in which war threatens these safe spaces. Teachers can frame the book’s exploration of these themes with the essential question “What makes you feel like you belong?” For Hà, her strong-willed mother and three older brothers constitute her family and the foundation of her home. However, she also associates her “home land” with the sweet scent of trees and the Tết celebrations. In contrast, she cannot speak English, abhors American fast food, and spends her lunches alone in her new home, Alabama.

Hà’s Vietnamese ethnicity also prevents others from accepting her into the American community. On her classmates’ mocking faces at school, she sees “nothing but / squeezed eyes, / twisted mouths” (146). Later in the book, someone teepees, throws eggs, and shatters a window in Hà’s house. The bullying and discrimination in the book will allow teachers to have a discussion of racial discrimination and the feeling of alienation that results from it.

For any students that have been teased because of their ethnicity, physical appearance, or linguistic differences, Hà’s encounters will resonate closely. I especially related to Hà’s frustration when her teacher, Miss Scott, makes a “ha-ha-ha” pun out of Hà’s name. In a world where YA immigrant narratives are hard to find, the rare refugee story is an essential mirror for affirming the identities of fellow refugees.

Even for students who comfortably belong in mainstream America, many will be able to relate to the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return from military duty. Hà can barely remember her own father, who left on a navy mission when she was one year old. For nine years, her family has awaited his return—even after they flee their home for America, they never forget to continue praying for his safety. For students with family members in the military, Hà’s longing and coping provides a healthy mirror for their own emotions.

The Sun is Also a Star ~ Nicola Yoon

“We’re undocumented immigrants, and we’re being deported tonight. Today is my last chance to try to convince someone – or fate – to help me find a way to stay in America. To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.” ~ Natasha

“There’s a Japanese phrase that I like: koi no yokan. It doesn’t mean love at first sight. It’s closer to love at second sight. It’s the feeling when you meet someone that you’re going to fall in love with them. […] I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m experiencing right now. The only slight (possibly insurmountable) problem is that I’m pretty sure that Natasha is not.” ~ Daniel

Natasha is an undocumented immigrant whose family moved to New York from Jamaica when she was eight. Her life is here, in the US, but today is her last day before she gets deported. Instead of packing or saying goodbye to the only place she calls home, Natasha departs on an adventure to try and stop her family’s deportation.

Daniel is the second son of Korean immigrants, their second chance at having a son graduate from “second-best school,” Yale. Today is his Yale interview; the first step towards becoming a doctor, a career Daniel has zero interest in. On his way uptown, Daniel notices a cute, African-American girl dancing her way down the street. He’s hooked.

Once they meet, Daniel and Natasha spend the day together exploring New York City, falling in love, and most importantly, trying to stop Natasha’s deportation. Along the way, they learn about each other’s families, their dreams, and themselves. In her novel, Yoon presents two contrasting yet honest portrayals of children of immigrants in the United States and their search to find out who they are and who they want to become.

The novel is made all the more interesting because each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, focusing mainly on Natasha and Daniel, while also providing the perspectives of other minor characters – or the universe – on the events of the day. Because of this, Yoon is able to show how a variety of characters in the same city – even family – can experience the world so differently. Somehow, these characters’ stories are all interconnected though, implying that fate might actually exist, no matter how little Natasha believes in it.

Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories, ed. Kem Knapp Sawyer

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Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories is a collection of nonfiction articles by nine journalists about the Syrian refugee crisis. It is an ebook, and can be found for free on Amazon here. It addresses issues like foreign aid, refugee camps, assimilation into other countries, and the effect of the crisis on children, and because it is composed of articles, it includes many personal stories, interviews, and photographs. I especially liked the interviews and photos, which gave the information presented in the book a human, emotional connection, and prevented the more factual sections from becoming boring. I also appreciated the multiple perspectives on the crisis provided by the different writers. I would recommend this book to anyone as a useful resource for increasing awareness about critical current issues surrounding the refugee crisis — for instance, the measures taken by the US to bar refugees from entering the country, and the the plight of refugees living in overcrowded, under-funded camps and towns.

Even though this is a nonfiction book, it still explores many themes that might be found in novels, like the value of home, and the responsibility of people with privilege to help those who are less privileged. Because of this, aspects of the book that might seem intimidating (like the journalistic language and the frequent references to people, events, and places) are still manageable, since they are tied together by broad and timeless themes. Overall, then, I think Flight from Syria is a worthwhile read that is very relevant today, and can still be enjoyable for people who are usually less interested in nonfiction.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Sawyer, Kem Knapp, ed. Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories. Washington, DC: Pulitzer Center, 2015. Web.

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

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Overall Rating: 96%

Relatable Characters?

Yes!

Epic?

Yes!

Funny?

Hilarious.

Moving?

At times~

Sad?

Maybe a little.

“‘One must always be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us,’” says the protagonist of Cassandra Clare’s steampunk fantasy novel Clockwork Angel (Clockwork 71). Set in 1878, the novel follows sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray as she is thrust into Victorian London’s supernatural Downworld—kidnapped by the Dark Sisters while travelling to London to live with her brother Nate. The Sisters torture Tessa in the name of preparing her for their master, the Magister. Threatening to harm her brother, the Sisters force Tessa to train her ability to Change: a power Tessa didn’t know she had that allows her to shapeshift into and touch the thoughts of any person whose possession she holds. Saved from the Dark Sisters by a group of demon-slaying warriors called Shadowhunters, Tessa agrees to assist the Shadowhunters with their investigation of the Pandemonium Club in return for their help finding her missing brother.

Clockwork Angel features a skillful balance of action, romance, humor, and insight that will likely capture the attention of any teenage reader looking for a compelling, thoughtful read. Although readers may take a couple of chapters to become accustomed to the fantastical world Clare has created, the world-building in Clockwork Angel is smoothly integrated into the narrative so that there are no major info dumps; the reader naturally learns about the Shadow World along with the protagonist.

When I first read Clockwork Angel in middle school, the novel’s witty dialogue, heart-wrenching scenes, and unexpected plot twists kept me turning pages. Rereading the novel for the second time since then was like returning to old friends. Clockwork Angel remains one of my favorite novels because the characters express sentiments that really resonate with me— serving as great mirrors in which I can see myself. Sharing my belief in the power of stories, Will, one of the Shadowhunters who saves Tessa from the Dark Sisters, notes how books can help readers become better equipped to face reality (Clockwork 164). I really appreciated seeing my love of reading reflected through both Will and Tessa especially because their fondness for books is so integral to their individual characters and relationship with each other.

Exploring important topics like identity, family, discrimination, and intolerance, Clockwork Angel is a strong start to The Infernal Devices trilogy—a series that gets progressively better with each book.

By Celina Sun

The Sun is Also A Star Review by Nicola Yoon

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A day can equate to a lifetime — or at least 340 pages of a book.

In her acclaimed novel, The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon presents a star-crossed love pair that experiences all the ups and downs of love in a single day. Natasha is an undocumented teenager whose family is slated to be deported that night. Daniel is a senior in high school who must balance his family’s expectations to become a doctor and his own desire to become a poet. Both meet at a records story in New York early in the morning and spend the whole day slowly falling in love with each other.

The day takes up the entire book, albeit the epilogue. While this creates an aura of excitement that quickens the pace of the book and made it hard to put down, the love between Natasha and Daniel felt rushed throughout the book. Daniel almost immediately finds Natasha attractive, but it takes Natasha a bit more time to warm up to Daniel and trust him. Yet, because of the structure of the novel, the pair are confessing their love to each other within a matter of hours of meeting. The pace of the book makes the pair’s connection seem superficial, though both ultimately are likeable and distinct characters. While I admittedly am skeptical when it comes to all love-at-first-sight stories, if Yoon had decided to spread things over a week rather than squish it all into a day, perhaps the romance in the novel would have seemed more genuine.

What will make this book a lasting star in the YA genre is its diverse characters that will allow many teenage readers to have characters that can reflect themselves and their experiences. Rather than tokenizing POC-characters as some YA novels do, Yoon is able to portray a genuinely diverse set of characters by not only writing about and legitimizing their experiences, but also giving them a chance to be just teens. Both Natasha and Daniel come from backgrounds that are rare in the YA genre: Natasha’s comes from a family of immigrants, her father is a security guard/aspiring actor; Daniel’s family owns a black haircare shop. Yoon is able to develop a love that celebrates these backgrounds rather than ignore it. It’s hard to come across a YA romance novel that is able to achieve such a balance between telling diverse experiences and a sweet love story, yet Yoon is able to maintain such a balance — an accomplishment which should be acknowledged.

The novel’s overall structure is also something that is worthy of praise. Not only does Yoon alternate between the perspective of Natasha and Daniel (such a switching of perspective seems to be common for YA novels), but it also incorporate the perspectives of many of some of the other secondary characters in the novel. For example, when Natasha and Daniel are eating at a Korean restaurant and the waitress berates Daniel to teach his “girlfriend” how to use chopsticks, the following two-page chapter is titled “The Waitress” and features a short explanation of how the waitress’ son married a white woman who also did not know how to use chopsticks. Her husband did not approve of the fact that his son was not marrying Korean, so the son and his girlfriend ended up being completely ostracized from the family, even having two kids without the waitress and her husband knowing. The chapter ends with the poignant lines: “Learn how to use chopsticks. This country can’t have everything.”

By allowing readers to step inside the worlds of such a diverse set of characters and the different people around them, Yoon manages to build a novel that will be able to help readers build a sense of empathy and appreciate different cultures. Even though the romance itself comes off as superficial at times, Yoon is still able to achieve much more than the typical YA romance novel often does. For that, readers of all backgrounds and ages will be thankful.

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

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Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has quickly woven itself within the tapestry of beloved young adult literature. Aristotle and Dante tells the story of the two eponymous Mexican American boys who develop a friendship during the summer of 1987 that goes on to change the course of their adolescence. Aristotle (Ari), who narrates the book through first person perspective, is a conflicted character who struggles with being much younger than his older siblings, effectively rendering him an only child. The crux of this struggle is his and his parents’ estranged relationship with his brother, Bernardo, who has been in prison since Ari was four under circumstances that remain withheld from Ari throughout most of the narrative. Ari deeply yearns for a relationship with his older brother, especially since he has trouble connecting with his own peers in El Paso, Texas.

In steps Dante, who, like Ari, positions himself as a social outcast. Their friendship blossoms effortlessly during a summer that is cut short due to an accident that leaves Ari confined to his house. After Dante confesses romantic feelings for Ari, their relationship is thrown for a curveball that is further complicated by Dante’s family move to Chicago for the school year. As Ari and Dante both grow into young men during their year apart, Ari finds their identities begin to diverge; he is concerned with following what he understands as a normal adolescence, which includes focusing on his masculinity and presumed attraction to girls, while Dante struggles with his Mexican American identity – he feels as if he is somehow less Mexican because of his lighter skin and carries some internalized discrimination due to this – and his burgeoning queer sexuality. When Dante returns to El Paso the following summer, the two boys are thrust back into a friendship that is simultaneously familiar and foreign, and Ari is forced to make a decision about what their relationship will look like moving forward.

This book is written in beautiful prose that is oftentimes quite poetic, making it an outstanding read for its aesthetic qualities. Sáenz’s style and artful use of language gives the work an occasional level of abstraction that makes it a complex and satisfying text for adolescents. His use of symbolism within the novel is frequent and intentional, illuminating elements of Ari’s identity and his relationship with Dante that he is not always aware of, serving to draw the reader closer into the text. The relationships in the text add to its complexity and suitability for adolescent readers and high school classrooms. The shifting relationship between Ari and Dante is particularly notable as they navigate the boundaries of friendship and romantic love, but equally interesting is Ari’s evolving relationship with his overbearing yet loving mother and reserved, war-traumatized father. There is great potential for adolescents to see their relationships with their own parents reflected in Ari’s relationship with his mom and dad, particularly as the relationship is not static but constantly shifting throughout the novel as Ari gets older and gains more agency apart from his parents. The purpose of the text adds yet another dimension of complexity as the text is less plot-driven than most young adult novels and more focused on the consciousness and development of Ari over a specific period of time. Sáenz is less concerned with the events that take place and more interested in Ari’s reaction and internalization of those events, formatting the text more toward abstraction than is typically done in young adult literature.

By: Josh Quinones

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

This Side of Home by Renée Watson

“Every summer the media come to my neighborhood, and every fall they come to my school. Never for good.

But there is something good to see here.

And not just all the new pretty houses and shops that line Jackson Avenue now. There is something good here. And not just because more white families have moved to this side of town.

There’s always been something good here.” (4)

This is an excerpt of the first chapter of Renée Watson’s This Side of Home, which is my recommendation for a whole class text at Brown Summer High School. Published in 2015, this young adult novel prioritizes the values of one’s community and incorporates critical discussions about neighborhood development as it relates to race. I recommend this book because of its complex themes and its accessible narrative style, and I will elaborate on both of these things in this blog post!

Right from the beginning, we know that this book is not a “typical high school” kind of book. Yes, there are several scenes of teenagers at school having some kind of conflict with their classmates. Yes, we even get some adolescent love going for us. However, this book is so much more than that. As twin sisters (and best friends) Nikki and Maya Younger navigate their last year of high school, their relationship faces significant strain while their neighborhood in Portland goes from being labeled “rough” and “dangerous” to becoming an “up-and-coming” area of the city.

As the demographic in their neighborhood changes, so does Richmond High’s student body. The neighborhood and the local school see an influx of white people in a historically Black area of Portland. These changes lead to cultural conflicts in the school as well as several arguments between the Younger twins, who have different feelings and opinions about the changes they see happening around them, specially their new white neighbors Kate and Tony.

So what? What’s so important about this book? This Side of Home allows for students and teachers to engage in deep and thoughtful discussions about the meaning of home and the importance of culture and community. Some essential questions that could be used with this book are:

  • How do you describe your relationship with your neighborhood or community?
  • How do you react to changes in your community?
  • What might be some of the positive and not-so-positive consequences of these changes?

These essential questions could be posed on the first day of classes to get students thinking about their relationship with their own communities, and as they read the book they will gain insight on how the characters in the book cope with the changes in their own neighborhood.

One engaging supplemental resource to accompany the teaching of This Side of Home is the video What It’s Like to Get Kicked Out of Your Neighborhood, in which 20-year-old Kai describes the gentrification in his neighborhood in San Francisco, California. Kai’s experiences with the skyrocketing rent prices in San Francisco’s Mission District, a historically Latinx area, parallels the experiences of Essence, who is Nikki and Maya’s best friend and neighbor. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Essence and her mother have to move out because they can no longer afford rent. This video allows students to see that gentrification is an issue that affects people of color all over the country.

In order to localize the issue of gentrification and make it relevant for BSHS students, teachers can also incorporate the article Rent prices on the rise in Rhode Island, study shows, which was published in March of 2017 on WPRI. The article includes a short video with some economics jargon about supply and demand, but it’s overall an accessible resource that brings to light the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island as rent prices continue to rise. This Side of Home’s character Essence is familiar with rent hikes and the struggles of finding affordable housing. While complaining about all the renovations her landlord has been making for future tenants, Essence vents to the Younger twins, “He knew he was going to sell the house. He knew it. And he knew we wouldn’t be able to afford it!” (22). Through this supplemental resource, we can see that Essence’s struggles with housing are relevant here in Rhode Island, too.

Furthermore, the content of this YA novel is extremely culturally relevant, as some students might have had experiences with drastic changes in their own neighborhood, especially those who live in Fox Point or the West End. The novel also grapples with complex themes of interracial relationships and the value of culture, making it a qualitatively complex text.

The narrative is written entirely from Maya’s point of view. Even though Maya is the narrator, we still get a glimpse into other character’s thoughts and emotions because of the book’s rich dialogue. Since it’s a narrative, This Side of Home is not very conducive for whole class reading activities like choral readings, but teachers could get around this problem by doing short skits or tableaux of various chapters. These activities can be easily accomplished because each chapter is only five or six pages.

The book could serve as mirror for women of color and/or people who have a twin or a sibling that attends the same school. It could be used as a window for all students who are navigating interracial romantic relationships and friendships. Furthermore, I strongly believe that high school students would like this novel, as its characters consider life post-high school and represent several pathways to success. While some students are applying to college, others are considering jobs in cosmetology or business.

Renée Watson successfully tackles some big life questions like coping with a changing environment, navigating complicated romantic/platonic/familial relationships, working through cultural conflicts, and tackling life after high school. Its accessible content and exhilarating prose make it a page-turner.

By Bruna

MLA Citation: Watson, Renée. This Side of Home. Bloomsbury, 2015.