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.

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Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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“I stare up at this house. It’s my father’s home too. It’s my home, they tell me. But right now, all I can see is a large cinder box that traps me inside.”

Naila is about to graduate high school in Florida and start a prestigious combined medical program at a University a few hours away from home with her best friend, Carla and boyfriend, Saif. Her ultra-conservative, Pakistani parents don’t know about that second part though. Naila is not allowed to have a boyfriend, let alone hang out with boys. Her parents will choose her future husband. Naila has been lying to her parents for a year about Saif, but when she sneaks out to Prom, her parents catch them together.

Livid, Naila’s parents decide to leave for a last minute, month-long family trip to Pakistan days before her graduation. Once there, Naila finally meets her aunts, uncles, cousins, and actually finds herself enjoying her time in Pakistan. However, unbeknownst to Naila, her parents have decided to arrange her marriage within the next few weeks and don’t intend for her to return to Florida with them. Naila struggles to fight against her parents’ wishes as she comes to terms with the fact that her core values and beliefs conflict with those of her parents.

This is the story about the dissonance between immigrant parents and their children’s values. Saeed shows how far parents will go in order to do what they think is best for their children, as well as the difficulties children of immigrants face in making sense of their different identities. This novel plays with themes of immigrant families, coming home, arranged marriage, and resilience within the poignant and emotional story of a teenager learning to stand up for herself. Naila’s story is one that is unfortunately more common than we realize, but Saeed’s take on it offers a unique and more accessible perspective.

Trigger Warning: instances of rape and physical abuse.

Saeed, Aisha. Written in the Stars. New York: Speak, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2016. Print.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7“Nothing before you counts,” he said. “And I can’t even imagine an after.”

She shook her head. “Don’t.

“What?”

“Don’t talk about after.”

“I just meant that… I want to be the last person who ever kisses you, too…. That sounds bad, like a death threat or something. What I’m trying to say is, you’re it. This is it for me.”

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a tale of young love that is a dynamic and heart-warming read.  Using witty, candid, and thoughtful language, Rowell explores the unique love that exists in the confines of high school while also exploring the impact of family and personal history.  Following the typical chain of events of a real high school relationship, Park and Eleanor meet on the school bus, have English class together, and struggle through the same school bullies and woes of gym class.

Although a high school love story may seem like a fairly typical premise of a young adult novel, Rowell defies the high school sweetheart archetype by creating complex protagonists with personalities and histories full of nuance and mystery.

Eleanor and Park’s family backgrounds at first appear insignificant to the relationship, but prove to be the most important component to understanding their future as a couple. Eleanor grew up in a broken and dysfunctional family. Stricken with poverty and harmed by abuse, Eleanor was never exposed to healthy love. Park however, grew up in a stable and supportive household with parents who love each other and care for their family. With two wildly different homes, the love that Eleanor and Park develop gains nuance and surprise. Getting to know the real Eleanor and the authentic Park builds a plot that keeps the reader constantly discovering new things about the characters’ identities and how each learns to love.

The intense backgrounds, and the effects it has on Eleanor in particular is atypical to many high school love stories, but it is precisely what makes this book so successful. The inclusion and acknowledgement of the effects of family dynamics adds a dimension to the narrative that is often missing in young adult novels, but that is crucial in creating a more complex and relatable character.

With a universally relatable theme of adolescence and love, the book is fitting for all ages. For older readers, the story provokes a sense of nostalgia for youth while enhancing the reader’s own appreciation for young love, even imbuing the reader with a sense of hope.  For younger readers, the experiences are relatable for most and will evoke empathy in all. In sum, Eleanor and Park is a must-read for anyone who has ever been in love, who is still looking to find the one, or has the real belief that personal background is important to acknowledge and explore.

By: Anna Fireman

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. Print.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

“We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood. The result is more jagged than smooth.”

-Ibi Zoboi, Author’s Note

American Street by Ibi Zoboi–a Haitian immigrant author–begins with opportunity and heartbreak as Fabiola Toussaint finally makes it from Haiti to America while her mother is set to be deported back.

Fabiola soon discovers that her aunt and cousins who sent for them have absconded their Haitian heritage to become fully “Americanized.” As the sole representative of her culture, Fabiola becomes “Fabulous,” a brave teen who approaches the challenges of inner city Detroit with the magical realism of her Haitian Vodou culture. Her desire to bring her mother back sees her navigate love, loyalties, and problems in her community.

Zoboi’s first novel is brilliantly written, vividly transcribed in the magic of Fabiola’s culture. That being said, it also very quickly degenerates into some disappointingly obtuse stereotypes of black American girls–including superficiality, perpetual female in-fighting, using drug dealing as the only legitimate source of income, and cyclic (almost valorized) domestic abuse. As honest as this may be to many personal experiences, including perhaps Zoboi’s, I found the text too often offensive and problematic for young people looking for a window into the black and immigrant narrative. It was offensive not at the inclusion of these themes, but in its treatment.

As the son of a Jamaican immigrant woman, I was looking for a mirror to validate some of my own family’s experiences between Canada and America. This book did not provide that; Fabiola valued family loyalty and selfish personal relationships over justice in explicit and problematic ways. Young people looking for a window into immigrant culture will entirely miss the narrative of hard-working Caribbean men and women that was the story of my family and my first generation peers’ families. There must also be more done in a novel like this to explicitly take issue with the horrific domestic abuse in teen relationships seen in the story.

I wish this text could intentionally and consistently problematize these stereotypes more, as Gene Lang did in American Born Chinese. Alas, the text was a bit too ambitious with other themes–like romance, culture shock, family loyalty, and (somewhat) police brutality–to significantly question these facets.

I recommend this book for young people looking for accounts of diverse experiences and magical realism narratives, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it for an accurate or healthy portrayal of immigrant (or black American) subcultures.

By Kashmeel McKoena

Zoboi, Ibi. American Street. New York, NY: Balzer Bray, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes…By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

~~

Arnold “Junior” Spirit barely walks through the entrance of his local high school, located in the Spokane Indian Reservation, before his geometry teachers convinces him to transfer to the wealthy Reardan High. At school, Junior struggles to fit in as an impoverished Indian in a predominantly white classroom. At home, members of his tribe, including his long-time buddy, Rowdy, call him a traitor for leaving the Spokane Reservation. In this hostile environment, Junior must discover, decide, and (at times) change his mind about who are “assholes” and who will bring love into his life.

From the opening line of the book, Junior’s voice is engaging, welcoming, and powerful. As a reader, I really felt like Junior was a close friend, directly talking to me. The book is peppered with silly cartoons that help pace the novel, and the resulting mix of words and drawings would be especially compelling for a reader that is easily bored by long paragraphs.

What I appreciate the most about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that it doesn’t hesitate to address a myriad of “taboo” personal issues—alcoholism, abuse, racial discrimination, poverty, eating disorders, mental illness, and more. Books will often address only one (if any) of these topics, ignoring the fact that many of Juinor’s struggles go hand-in-hand. While the book highlights the systemic injustices that American Indians face, it never employs a self-pitying tone. Instead, Junior’s love of basketball, cartoons, and his classmate Penelope keeps the narrative humorous and meaningful.

For teens that relate to any aspect of Junior’s multi-faceted identity, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is supportive and inspiring. For teens that don’t relate, Junior’s experience provides an essential window into the semi-autobiographical life of an American Indian teenager.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown and Co., 2007. Print.

By Sally

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

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“And this makes me wonder if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone.

I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole.”

Jade Butler is an artist. She transforms mundane pieces of newspapers and magazines into colorful and striking collages. But everyday, Jade takes the bus to her school that is far away from home, far away from her family and friends and far away from the community of Northern Portland where she lives. At St. Francis High School, Jade is one of few black kids amongst the most wealthy and white students. Even though her family struggles to make ends meet, Jade works hard to get the best grades so she can one day go to college and travel the world. However, her life changes when she joins a female mentoring program in hopes of getting a college scholarship. Jade’s new friendship with her mentor Maxine is not always easy, but it helps Jade learn how to speak up for herself.

Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together is a story about a young woman who learns how to stay true to her despite seemingly impossible odds. This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy classic coming-of-age tales, but Watson takes this classic structure and infuses it with Jade’s much-needed, fresh, observational voice. Piecing Me Together takes on important topics like racism and police brutality, and it should be read by people from all backgrounds. The issues in this novel affect all of us. No matter who you are or where you come from, readers will be inspired by the essential lessons Jade learns about life, friendship and family.

Watson, Renée. Piecing Me Together. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Madeleine Rozanski

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.

All American Boys: A Novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

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All American Boys: A Novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is an excellent conversation starter.  The novel explores issues of justice, familial ties, prejudice, and loyalty in revealing how racism is experienced through police brutality today.  The chapters that alternate between the voices of a Black and a white young man offer a painfully honest portrayal of how these young adults are forced to cope with racism individually, and collectively.

On his way to a party, Rashad, a young Black man, is falsely accused of stealing a bag of chips by a police officer who later severely assaults him.  The incident divides both his school and neighborhood community amidst the growing national tension surrounding police brutality.  Rashad finds himself under the spotlight of a conversation about racism especially after a video of the assault goes viral.  Coping with the pain of being violated and this unwanted attention, he finds strength in making art.

Quinn is thrust into an uncomfortable position when he sees Rashad being assaulted by a police officer he later recognizes as the older brother of one of his best friends.  While he would rather remain silent about the incident, he is forced to become vocal as he comes to terms with the racism all around him.

All American Boys forces us to look deep within ourselves and grapple with how we are all implicated in issues of racism in different ways.  Some of us may need to stay strong in the face of being constantly victimized by society, while some of us may need to step up and speak up against injustice.   This book is perfect for those who find themselves dealing with the discomfort of experiencing or witnessing racism as well as those who are seeking the inspiration to be in the movement to end it.

By: Gregory Stewart

Brendan, Kiely & Reynolds, Jason. All American Boys: A Novel. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2015. Print.

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

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“Question everything anything anyone ever says to you or forces down your throat or makes you write a hundred times on the blackboard.” Have you ever been THAT token for a White person.  Well welcome to the experience of Juliet, a Lesbian Puerto Rican Girl from the South Bronx.  Juliet Takes a Breath is about a girl who becomes exposed to a whole new world of identities aside from her Puerto Rican Lesbian Identity.  She quickly learns how toxic her white relationships are because they have created assumptions of her identity.  Some even refusing to acknowledge the wrongs that have been done on parts of her identity.  Her girlfriend Laine, a white girl, completely disregards her struggle as a puerto rican girl and her history.  Her other relationship is with Hawthorne who is referred to as the pussy lady because of the book she had written.  Hawthorne took Juliet in as an intern but Juliet later learns that she ended up being a charity case for Hawthorne. Hawthorne referred to her as the poor brown girl who has struggled in the violent bronx that she has turned into her intern so she can save her form that life.    
If you in anyway identify with either being a person of color, or a lesbian or simply want to read about other marginalized identities, this is the book for you.  It is truly a riveting novel that is situationally complex and opens the minds of readers who may be in similar  situations.  Juliet takes A breath takes you on the journey from her coming out to her family the day she is supposed to leave for internship to her relationship with her white girlfriend and white hippie boss all the way to her realization to love all parts of her identity and to not let anyway dictate who she is or who she should become.  All letting her to come to a conclusion and just breathe.

By Aishatu Mohammed

Rivera, Gabby. Juliet takes a breath. S.l.: Lightening Source, 2016. Print.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Which is more important—survival or family? This is a question the protagonist of On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis struggles with throughout the 456-page thriller. Denise is an autistic, biracial teen living in the Netherlands in the year 2035 with her drug-addicted mother and transgender sister, Iris. The novel begins on a suspenseful note: “The first time my future vanished was July 19, 2034” (Duyvis, 1). A comet is scheduled to hit Earth, destroying everything and making the planet near uninhabitable. The novel follows before, during, and after the comet hits through Denise’s eyes as she struggles to earn a place on a generation ship (the only way off the planet and the path to ensured survival) for her family. As the book’s jacket asks: “When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?” (Duyvis).

While the text will undoubtedly appeal to any fan of sci-fi, it goes far beyond the typical and delves into the complexities of each character, making it far more realistic than most young adult literature I’ve read. What I found most memorable were these portrayals; Duyvis allows her characters to have real issues to grapple with, but doesn’t define them with only one trait. Iris is transgender, yes, and the novel discusses this. However, it also deals with the choices she feels she must make in order to retain her humanity, despite putting herself in danger.

But it is Denise, the narrator, who really makes the novel special. She’s determined, powerful, smart—everything most protagonists in science fiction are. Yet she’s also biracial and autistic—two characteristics that aren’t usually given to a protagonist, especially in science fiction, where white, neurotypical characters dominate. On the Edge of Gone is not only a thrilling read: It’s an important one, one that proves that we should avoid falling back on stereotypes and shouldn’t other those who are different. Duyvis threads this idea throughout: Denise comments that “people have certain expectations of girls who look like I do—confidence and extroversion and sass—and that’s not me” (Duyvis, 123). Duyvis also deals with the intersection of Denise’s identities as half-black and autistic: “At the time, I thought the diagnosis [of autism] was delayed because I was bad at being autistic…; it took me years to realize that since I wasn’t only Black, but a Black girl, it’s like the DSM shrank to a handful of options [she was previously labeled as bipolar, psychotic, intellectually disabled, and having oppositional defiant disorder]” (Duyvis, 210). In one scene, Denise makes a joke, and her companion is surprised; aren’t all autistic people literal? No, Denise proves.

On the Edge of Gone is a brilliant entry-point to learning more about autism, racial stereotypes, transgender individuals, and drug addiction. Anyone who has ever been ostracized for a part of them that is either impossible or very difficult to change will be able to relate. Prepare to have your views challenged and question your assumptions. That’s how you know On the Edge of Gone has made an impact on you.

On the Edge of Gone may at first appear to be a long novel, but it reads very quickly, with many twists. My favorite part? Unlike many books, which will answer the beginning question that I asked (“Which is more important—survival or family?”) definitively, Duyvis proves that no issue is that simple. Denise doesn’t always make the choices we expect of her; she isn’t all about the noble, self-sacrificing option. She’s about weighing the pros and cons, seeing what she herself needs as well as how she can help others. And that’s what makes her far more relatable than most heroines—and On the Edge of Gone a far more enjoyable and though-provoking read than most other young adult literature.

By: Grace Layer

Duyvis, Corinne. On the Edge of Gone. New York: Amulet Books, 2016. Print.