Book: “Burn Baby Burn” by Meg Medina
Publishing Info: Candlewick Press, March 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.
After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.
Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.
And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?
Award-winning author Meg Medina transports readers to a time when New York seemed about to explode, with temperatures and tempers running high, to discover how one young woman faces her fears as everything self-destructs around her.
Review: So, okay, I may be kind of cheating with this one, as I know that I am usually here to review horror, thrillers, and graphic novels. “Burn Baby Burn” is KIND OF a thriller, but at it’s heart it’s a historical fiction that focuses on family strife and societal tensions. Whatever, I don’t care, because this book did set me on edge and that’s what thrillers do. So it counts. Plus, Meg Medina is a fabulous YA author, whose wonderful “Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass” won the Pura Belpré Award in 2014, and I have been keeping my eye on her. While that book had it’s moments of suspense, “Burn Baby Burn” is constantly walking on a line of intensity that is about to explode. And given the year and the setting (1977 in Queens, New York), it’s no wonder.
The scariest part of this story, where most of the suspense comes from, is not the Son of Sam cloud that is constantly hanging over these characters (more on that in a bit). Instead, it is the fact that Nora is sharing an apartment with her brother Hector, who is turning more and more into a violent psychopath as every day goes by. When he isn’t lashing out at his mother or kicking the neighborhood mutt in the ribs (poor Tripod!!! Once you kick an animal you are DEAD TO ME), Hector is stealing pills to sell with the neighborhood drug dealer, and threatening his sister’s life. I was kind of worried that Hector was going to just be a crazed, violent antagonist without purpose, but Medina makes it pretty clear from the get go that Hector has had serious issues ever since he was a child, and that a racist and disenfranchised community he has to live in hasn’t made things better. She doesn’t not excuse his behavior, but she does make the reader see more layers to him, which makes Nora’s home life all the more tragic.
Nora is a protagonist who is both super easy to root for, but also realistic enough that she makes big, teenage mistakes that make you want to shake her. She thinks that since she’s almost eighteen that she can handle everything that is thrown her way, but it’s very clear that this is not the case. Of course, her parents haven’t made things any easier for her. Her father can’t be bothered with his first family, and her mother flips between making excuses for Hector’s sociopathy, ignoring outright, and blaming Nora. While Nora finds solace an safety with her best friend Kathleen and her family, there is always a socioeconomic and racial divide between them, unspoken as it may be, and Medina does a good job of addressing that without casting any kind of judgment towards either girl. Nora is also in a league of her own in her goals. She isn’t interested in college or academia, but does have a passion in woodworking, and is more interested in going to a trade school to master that craft. In a world where so many of the YA girl protagonists we see are writers, artists, or poets at heart, it was delightfully surprising to see one who is interested in a nontraditional vocation (one that is disappearing from our schools). And I say that as one of those artsy writer girls. Nora was a breath of fresh air on all levels.
Time and place is phenomenal in this book. 1977 Queens was filled with lots of tension, from racial tensions in the community to Son of Sam stalking couples in cars. Having this backdrop for Nora’s coming of age story was incredibly original and also very appropriate. The specter of violence and bloodshed that haunted the entire city is a fabulous juxtaposition to the specter of violence that is haunting Nora’s own home. She is more afraid of a serial killer that she is her abusive brother, or tells herself she is. And with the nods to pop culture of the time really tied this story together. Nora is into disco, she and her boyfriend Pedro go see “Star Wars: A New Hope” in the theater, and Hector wants to go to CBGBs to see The Ramones. Medina really captured 1977 without hitting us over the head with it. Though this is probably due in part to the fact that some of the themes from then (systematic racism, frustrated youth, misogyny) are just as relevant today as they were back in 1977. And as everything started to come to a boil, even though I knew what was coming, when it happened it was still incredibly nerve wracking.
“Burn Baby Burn” is probably one of the best YA novels I’ve read this year, and Meg Medina once again has written a story about a situation many of us may not think about in our day to day lives. I was tied up in knots as I read it, and think that it deserves some serious recognition and a wider audience. The nostalgia and ferocity come off of it in waves, and Nora Lopez has a great tale to tell. Seek it out!
Rating 9: Both an intense story about familial strife, and a coming of age tale during a tumultuous and frightening time. Nora Lopez is the YA protagonist we need to see more of.
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