Kate’s Review: “Grown”

49397758Book: “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from Edelweiss+.

Book Description: Korey Fields is dead.

When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.

Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.

Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields?

Review: Thank you to Edelweiss+ for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: if you haven’t checked out Tiffany D. Jackson’s books, be you a YA thriller fan or just a thriller fan in general, you absolutely NEED to. Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and when I heard that her newest novel, “Grown”, was taking on the sexual exploitation of Black teenage girls searching for stardom, I knew that it was going to be her toughest, but perhaps most important, novel yet.

First of all, content warnings abound on this book. Jackson herself puts a content warning at the beginning of this book, and it is definitely necessary. “Grown” deals with themes of sexual abuse, grooming, and psychological abuse and trauma.

“Grown” is an unflinching look at the sexual abuse and victimization of teenage girl Enchanted, a Black girl with dreams of becoming a singing sensation. When R&B superstar Korey Fields (who is twenty eight to her seventeen) sees her at an audition, he offers to take her under his wing and help her become a singer, but from the get go you know that something is off. He texts her about her life. He compliments her on how pretty she is. He calls her ‘Bright Eyes’. But once he gets her on tour and away from her parents and her support system, he isolates her, he abuses her, and he makes her completely subservient to him under guise of care and love. There are clear influences from R. Kelly in this story (side note: if you are interested in social justice issues regarding the #MeToo movement but haven’t watched “Surviving R. Kelly” yet, go watch it. Go watch it now.), but Enchanted as a character is wholly original and an incredibly realistic teenage girl. Her insecurities, her dreams, her certain naiveté, everything about her was on point. Jackson paints a clear portrait of a girl who has been manipulated into a dangerous situation, and you never feel any victim blaming towards her. On the contrary, we see how easy it would be for Enchanted to get into that situation because of the manipulations of a predator, and the inaction of those who are willing to prop up a predator based on his fame, wealth, and power. Jackson also points out the very important point that Black girls aren’t as easily seen as victims in our culture due to societal racism that dehumanizes Black people, and sexualizes Black girls from a young age. Misogynoir is a very dangerous thing, and it allows predators to get away with their predation, and you see it over and over again with Enchanted, even in seemingly mundane ways (one moment that struck me was when her swim coach told her to get a bigger suit because she was ‘spilling out’ of the one she was wearing, as if Enchanted’s body is somehow her fault). Seeing all of this play out is devastating, and seeing Enchanted failed by those who should be protecting her (I am leaving her parents out of this indictment, by the way, as while I don’t want to go into TOO many details, they are powerless in their own ways) is so upsetting.

Oh, and there is also a mystery at hand here! Right off the bat, Korey Fields is dead, and Enchanted is covered in ‘beet juice’. The narrative is split into two timelines. The first is before, and the second is during and after, with first person accounts, transcripts, and conversations all sprinkled in to lay out the building blocks of the murder case. I did feel like the mystery took a back seat to the bigger issues at hand, but that is totally okay in this work. In fact, things that made the mystery more complex and threw doubt as to Enchanted’s reliability as a first person narrator almost weakened the narrative, as it didn’t feel necessary to throw in twists and turns to throw the reader off the scent. Regardless, it was a satisfying mystery that was well laid out, and I liked how Jackson used different writing styles and devices to build up a suspenseful story that you are invested in.

“Grown” is once again a triumph by Tiffany D. Jackson. But it’s also perhaps one of the more important reads about #MeToo themes. It also asks many hard questions and makes the reader really think about how society values power and fame over the welfare of others.

Rating 9: An important, suspenseful, and heart wrenching story, “Grown” shines a much needed light on misogyny, sexual violence, and the way that race plays a part to make victims, especially Black women and girls, even more vulnerable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grown” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “YA Contemporary by Black Authors”.

Find “Grown” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “This Is My America”

52855111._sx318_sy475_Book: “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson

Publishing Info: Random House Children’s Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Dear Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.

Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Though I don’t live right in the city, I live close enough to Minneapolis that I was following the aftermath of the George Floyd murder with a heavy heart and no small amount of anger. Anger towards the MPD, anger towards racists who were saying awful shit, anger at the white supremacists who came into the city to stir up trouble (a bit of fear of that too; given that we’re a Jewish household, for a few nights there we were taking precautions). While I hope that this senseless murder and the protests that came after will start to produce some change when it comes to race in this country, I also know that racism is a deep part of our society and not easily swayed. It was around this time that I got “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson. While I love that more books are being published that address the racism in our country, be it societal or systemic, it’s terrible that things have changed so little that these books continue to be necessary. Circumstances aside, “This Is My America” is another serious contender for one of my favorite reads of the summer.

First and foremost as mentioned above, the themes of this book of racism in the American Justice System and in America itself are pressing and emotional, and I thought that through Tracy’s story Johnson has a more unique perspective. I’ve read a good number of YA books where an unarmed Black person is murdered by the police, which is of course a horrific reality, but in “This Is My America” we look at a different injustice: wrongfully convicted/accused Black men who end up on Death Row. Tracy’s father has been on Death Row for seven years and his date of execution is less than a year away, so for her and her family the hope of his case being revisited is imperative. We see how the trauma has affected her family, from the financial burden laying on their mother, to her younger sister Corinne never knowing her father at home, to Tracy’s obsession affecting her relationships at home and at school. It’s an angle that we don’t get to see as often, that even when ‘justice’ is supposedly served, for a lot of Black men in prison there is no actual justice. Tracy’s desperation is compounded when her brother Jamal is accused of murdering his friend Angela, a white girl who had an on and off again relationship with the sheriff’s son. Jamal didn’t do it, but given that he’s Black he doesn’t trust the police, so he runs. And as Tracy starts to dig into what happened to Angela, she starts to see that it’s not the Black community in their small Texas town that is the threat, but a hidden rot of White Supremacy that has started to rise in the current social conditions. Add into that a corrupt police force and sheriff’s office and you have Tracy trying to find justice on her own. Johnson addresses all of these themes with care and shows the complexity, and it never feels like she’s talking down to her audience. The only time that it feels like it’s being spoon fed or explained is when within the story one would be carefully explaining the ideas, so it fit and didn’t feel out of place. And on top of all that, Johnson included a very substantial Author’s Note at the end that provided a lot of context and resources for the topics in this book.

As if a fabulous overall thematic wasn’t enough, we also get a really well done and well thought out mystery! I wanted to know who killed Angela, just as I wanted to know what actually happened to the couple whose murder sent Tracy’s father to prison. Johnson lays out a lot of clues, a lot of suspects, and a lot of suspenseful moments as Tracy takes the investigation into her own hands, and manages to weave a lot of complexities into the story. I was kept in suspense and on the edge of my seat as more sinister clues were unveiled, and genuinely taken in with each reveal.

One qualm that kept it from a perfect rating: there is a love triangle between Tracy, her best friend Dean, and her childhood friend Quincy (whose father was killed by the police while Tracy’s father was arrested). I don’t really know why there is a love triangle, but there is. I found it a little hard to believe that Tracy would even be entertaining the idea of romance with two different boys when her brother is wanted for murder, her father’s days on death row are dwindling, and there is a potential threat of the Klan being directed towards her family. But at the same time, I know that teenagers can get caught up in hormones maybe? It wasn’t distracting enough to totally throw me off, but it felt out of place.

But really, “This Is My America” is fantastic. It absolutely deserves to  become the next YA sensation, and given how a lot of the themes in this story seem to have come to a head this summer, it feels all the more relevant and all the more pressing. Kim Johnson, I cannot wait to see what you do next!

Rating 9: Incendiary, powerful, and still far too relevant, “This Is My America” peels back systemic racism in the American Legal Justice System, and has a compelling mystery to boot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is My America” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books Similar to THUG”, and “YA Contemporary by Black Authors”.

Find “This Is My America” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Bookclub Review: “It’s Not The End of the World”

504509We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald

Book Description: Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.

Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.

Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.

I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.

But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.

I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.

Serena’s Thoughts

So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.

Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.

Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.

I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.

Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
  2. What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
  3. What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
  4. Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
  5. Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“It’s Not The End of the World” is included on the Goodreads lists “Coming of Age Stories”, and “Books for My Eleven Year Old Self”.

Find “It’s Not The End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha