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.


X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

Before he was a leading human rights activist, who was Malcolm X?

X: A Novel tells the story of young Malcolm X—born Malcolm Little and later also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—as he copes with his father’s death, his mother’s being taken away, and the inevitable separation from his siblings. The story opens with sixteen-year-old Malcolm boarding a bus from his home in Lansing, Michigan to Boston, where he plans to live with his half-sister Ella. The novel follows Malcolm through his adventures in Boston and Harlem while incorporating flashbacks to his younger years.

Though the novel is a fictionalized account of Malcolm X’s younger years, the tales of the world of jazz, zoot suits, conked hair, girls, and drugs runs very close to the narrative of the activist’s early life as described in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

At its core, X: A Novel is a story about a young black man trying to make sense of a deeply racialized 1940s America. It is co-written by Kekla Magoon, author of How It Went Down, and Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X. This novel is a must-read for anyone who wishes to learn more about the man who has inspired generations of people in the U.S. and abroad.

By Bruna

MLA Citation: Shabazz, Ilyasah, and Kekla Magoon. X: A Novel. Candlewick Press, 2015.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon


Tariq Johnson was a sixteen-year-old black boy who lived in the ghetto. Like any other boy, one day he went to the store to get some items for his Momma as well as a Snickers bar for his younger sister Tina, who is developmentally delayed.

That’s when it happened. Tariq Johnson was shot twice and killed. Jack Franklin, his shooter, is a white man who is found innocent on the grounds of self-defense. The case stirs national controversy over race relations and gun violence.

Brilliantly written and chillingly reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s case, How It Went Down details the aftermath of the death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson and its impact on immediate friends and family as well as the rest of his community on Peach Street. Kekla Magoon writes the story through a myriad of perspectives, including: Junior, his best friend who has been incarcerated for the past few years; Tina, Tariq’s little sister; and Reverend Alabaster Sloan, who uses this case as a means to gain empathy and popularity as he runs for office. Through a multitude of voices and experiences, we learn about grief, pain, anger, confusion, and a mix of other emotions as the mystery of Tariq’s death unveils day by day.

How It Went Down is also a story about gang involvement: a big controversy surrounding the case was Tariq’s potential involvement with the Kings, one of the prevalent gangs in the neighborhood. Tyrell, his best friend, learns that he might not have known Tariq as well he thought he did: “A week or so ago, Tariq was talking about the Kings again. He got like that from time to time. We all did. And I talked him down off it, because that was our deal. Did he go back on me?” (185).

It’s also a story about the school-to-prison pipeline. Junior was Tariq’s best friend in second grade; they even shared their fruit during lunch at school growing up. When Junior joined the Kings, Tariq gave him his blessings, even though they had promised each other to never join a gang. Junior knows that things are different now, with Tariq dead and Junior locked up for a crime he didn’t commit: “I still think about that now, eating off the metal trays in the prison cafeteria. Sometimes there is an apple or a banana, and I always think about him” (140).

Above all, it’s a story about learning to cope with loss. Kekla Magoon’s simple prose merges beautifully with the complex, emotionally exhausting themes about a story that is all-to-common in post-Jim Crow America.

Want to learn more? Check out How It Went Down’s weebly page here!

By: Bruna

MLA Citation: Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. Henry Holt and Company, 2014.