Reviews of the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Award Winner and Honor Books

Fiction and Poetry Winner

A Sitting in St. James
by Rita Williams-Garcia
High School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    480 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-236729-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-236732-7    $10.99

Williams-Garcia, whose YA titles include the 1995 classic Like Sisters on the Homefront and Jumped (rev. 3/09), offers an unusual angle on the subject of slavery with this sobering depiction of life on a nearly bankrupt sugar plantation in Louisiana just prior to the Civil War. Here the lives of the white Guilbert family members and their enslaved “holdings” are intimately interwoven in a series of threads that span generations and reveal the social and political boundaries within which the intriguing cast of characters exist and survive. The eighty-year-old Guilbert matriarch, Madame Sylvie, insists on sitting for a portrait the family can’t afford in her efforts to retain a connection to the past. Her son and nemesis Lucien, the manager of the plantation, desperately schemes to avoid foreclosure. His son, essentially engaged to the daughter of a wealthy planter, is in love with a fellow West Point cadet. A family friend spends the summer because her mother hopes the Guilberts will cure her of her unconventional and unladylike ways. Among the enslaved young people on the plantation who are subjected to cruelty as an everyday way of life are Madame Sylvie’s personal servant Thisbe and Lucien’s “quadroon” daughter Rosalie, who is ostracized by her grandmother but viewed by her father as the family’s ticket to solvency. In this sweeping, richly researched, and powerfully delivered tale of privilege and exploitation — often a difficult read — Williams-Garcia’s storytelling is magnificent; her voice honest and authentic. Appended with an author’s note and a bibliography. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

From the May/June 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books

Fighting Words
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    269 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-9848-1568-2    $17.99

Ten-year-old Delicious Nevaeh Roberts, a.k.a. Della, doesn’t take “snow” from anyone (“Suki says whenever I want to use a bad word, I can say snow”). She’s learned to be tough from her fiercely protective sixteen-year-old sister Suki, who has been her de facto parent since their meth-addicted mother went to prison. Their life in East Tennessee is looking up now that they have moved in with pragmatic foster mom Francine. Della is making new friends at school and learning to swim at the Y, while Suki has scored a cashier job at their local supermarket. But Suki is hiding a devastating secret about the time they lived with their mom’s boyfriend Clifton, a secret that causes her to wake up screaming every night. It’s only after Suki attempts suicide that Della understands it’s time to use her own voice to help her sister speak up. “Sometimes you’ve got a story you need to find the courage to tell.” Newbery Honor winner Bradley (The War That Saved My Life, rev. 1/15) perfectly balances pathos and humor (as found in many of Della’s observations) in this tender story of sisterhood, while also showcasing the astonishing strength and resilience of children to confront, and eventually heal from, trauma and sexual abuse. Della’s bold, cheeky first-person narration is unforgettable, as is the supporting cast of adult characters, from redoubtable Francine to deli-counter worker Maybelline, whose brusque demeanor belies a kind heart. An author’s note includes information about suicide and abuse prevention organizations. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Punching the Air
by Ibi Zoboi with Yusef Salaam; illus. by Omar T. Pasha
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    400 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-299648-0    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299650-3    $10.99

Sixteen-year-old Amal Dawud Shahid (who is African American) knows he didn’t throw the punch that left Jeremy Mathis (who is white) injured “so bad / that he can’t wake up / to tell the truth.” But Amal is nevertheless arrested and sent to trial. As this first-person verse novel begins, testimonies from witnesses are “like a scalpel / shaping me into / the monster / they want me to be.” Amal is found guilty and sent to a juvenile detention center, where he is thrust into a world of unspeakable danger and despair. Even in the direst of circumstances, though, there are moments of peace for Amal — through protection from fellow inmate Kadon and his crew, letters received from his crush, and his talents for poetry and the visual arts (Kadon calls him “Young Basquiat”); Pasha’s spare but evocative black-and-white illustrations are interspersed throughout. Zoboi and Salaam’s expert placement of lines on the page reinforces the harsh reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, with repeated visual and textual imagery of “squares…corners…boxes” reflecting Amal’s feelings of suffocation and frustration. However, as he reminds himself, “Amal means hope,” and the sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of this young man will have readers holding out hope until the novel’s end. An author’s note details Zoboi’s connection to and ultimate collaboration with Salaam, along with his history as a member of the “Central Park Five,” now the Exonerated Five. EBONI NJOKU

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winners and honors were announced on June 23rd, 2021. For reviews of the other winning titles and more, click on the tag BGHB21.

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