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Reviews of the 2018 CSK Author Award winners

Winner

Piecing Me Together
by Renée Watson
Middle School, High School    Bloomsbury    264 pp.
2/17    978-1-68119-105-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68119-106-5    $12.99

At her mother’s prodding, Jade has spent her high school career preparing herself for success. That has included taking every opportunity offered to her: a scholarship to the prestigious (and mostly white; Jade is African American) St. Francis High School. SAT prep classes. Essay-writing classes. While Jade has accepted every offer, she wonders who benefits more — she herself, or the people who get to boast that they’ve helped an “at-risk” girl from a “bad” neighborhood. While she does have financial and social issues to contend with at home, Jade is also fluent in Spanish and a talented artist; she doesn’t particularly feel at-risk. When her guidance counselor suggests a “Woman to Woman” mentoring group, Jade is hopeful that her mentor will take the time to get to know her. But Maxine proves to be as clueless as the rest of them — when she even bothers to pay attention or show up. With no one willing to ask the questions to discover who she truly is, Jade realizes she will have to take the initiative and introduce herself to the world — and, in turn, create her own opportunities. Just as Jade is engrossed in her history-class study of York, the slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark, Watson (This Side of Home) takes Jade on her own journey of self-discovery, one that readers will avidly follow. With each chapter preceded by a Spanish word or phrase, this involving, thought-provoking novel is a multifaceted and clear-eyed exploration into the intersections of race, class, and gender. EBONI NJOKU

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut
by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Gordon C. James
Primary   Millner/Bolden Books/Agate    32 pp.
10/17    978-1-57284-224-3    $17.95
e-book ed.  978-1-57284-808-5    $17.95

Brown skin, a dimpled smile, and a fresh haircut worthy of a standing ovation. Barnes takes a weekly, mundane activity for an African American boy — a trip to the barbershop — and shows its potential for boosting his self-esteem and therefore his place in the universe. The unnamed protagonist tells of his haircut from start to finish, narrating most of it in the second person, which invites all readers, regardless of ethnic background or hair texture, to witness and share in his experience. James’s color-saturated, full-page illustrations aptly capture the protagonist’s bravado, swagger, and even his humility, which he needs in accepting a post-cut kiss from his admiring mother. In the accompanying text, Barnes creatively portrays and affirms the boy’s hubris and hyperbole: he calls himself a “brilliant, blazing star” so bright that “they’re going to have to wear shades when they look up to catch your shine.” Alternately precise, metaphorical, and culturally specific, Barnes’s descriptions make each page a serendipity. In his afterword, Barnes notes that the barbershop and the church are “pretty much the only place in the black community where a boy is ‘tended to’ — treated like royalty.” A not-to-be-missed portrayal of the beauty of black boyhood. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Long Way Down
by Jason Reynolds
High School    Dlouhy/Atheneum    306 pp.    g
10/17    978-1-4814-3825-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-3827-8    $10.99

Fifteen-year-old Will, immobilized with grief when his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, slowly comes to mull The Rules in his head. There are three: don’t cry, don’t snitch, and “if someone you love / gets killed, / find the person / who killed / them and / kill them.” So Will locates Shawn’s gun, leaves his family’s eighth-floor apartment, and — well, here is where this intense verse novel becomes a gripping drama, as on each floor of the descending elevator Will is joined by yet another victim or perpetrator in the chain of violence that took his brother’s life. Shawn’s best friend Buck gets into the elevator on seven; Dani, Will’s friend from childhood, gets in on six; Will and Shawn’s uncle Mark gets in on five, in a cloud of cigarette smoke. And so it goes, each stop of the elevator adding to the chorus of ghosts (including Will and Shawn’s father), each one with his or her perspective on The Rules. The poetry is stark, fluently using line breaks and page-turns for dramatic effect; the last of these reveals the best closing line of a novel this season. Read alone (though best aloud), the novel is a high-stakes moral thriller; it’s also a perfect if daring choice for readers’ theater. ROGER SUTTON

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

star2 The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    453 pp.
2/17    978-0-06-249853-3    $17.99

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives a life many African American teenagers can relate to: a life of double consciousness. Caught between her rough, predominantly black neighborhood and the “proper,” predominantly white prep school she attends, Starr has learned how to “speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people.” This precarious balance is broken when Starr witnesses the shooting of her (unarmed) childhood friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. What follows is a gut-wrenching chain of events that alters all Starr holds dear. New relationships are forged, old ones are severed, and adversaries arise as Starr’s family, friends, school, and neighborhood react to Khalil’s death, including questioning who Khalil was, and whether his death was justified. Between her neighborhood’s “no-snitching” code and inaccurate media portrayals, Starr must decide whether or not to speak out — and her decision could endanger her life. With a title taken from rapper Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE (“The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”), the novel introduces numerous components of the urban experience, “thug life” included. From drug addicts to police officers, most characters are multifaceted, proving that Starr’s world is not all black or white (or black vs. white, for that matter). The story, with so many issues addressed, can feel overwhelming at times, but then again, so can the life of an African American teen. Debut author Thomas is adept at capturing the voices of multiple characters, and she ultimately succeeds in restoring Starr’s true voice. Thomas has penned a powerful, in-your-face novel that will similarly galvanize fans of Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down (rev. 11/14) and Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (rev. 11/15).

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

For more, click on the tag ALA Midwinter 2018.

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