Class is in session

There’s lots to learn for the protagonists of these five school-set novels for middle- and high schoolers — and, in many cases, for the other characters around them.

All You Have to Do 
by Autumn Allen; lyrics by Kahlil AkNahlej Allen 
High School    Kokila/Penguin    432 pp. 
8/23    9780593619049    $19.99 
e-book ed.  9780593619056    $10.99 

Alternating first-person accounts tell the intrinsically linked stories of Gibran in 1995 and his uncle Kevin in 1968. When Gibran, one of the few Black students in his Massachusetts prep school, and his friends ask to participate in a Day of Absence in support of the Million Man March, they are denied due to the event’s “divisive” nature. Gibran leads the charge to respond in a manner that will get the entire school’s attention — and may jeopardize his future. In the parallel story line, Kevin is a Black activist attending Columbia University, keenly aware of the university’s unjust practices and their effect on neighboring Harlem. Columbia’s response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adds to a growing list of concerns, and plans for a protest escalate into a (real-life) student takeover. Allen has created two fully developed, sympathetic characters who must decide what liberation truly means. Kevin and Gibran share a commitment to activism, sometimes to the detriment of their closest relationships. Both voices are clear in their convictions; flashbacks within Kevin’s chapters and “What I don’t say” sections within Gibran’s deepen understanding. Allen’s debut novel admirably explores various facets of African American activism and protest, including debates about what is deemed too radical for the movement, and discussion of the role of Black women. Lyrics “by” Gibran appear occasionally, along with some black-and-white illustrations by Karen Eutemey (unseen); a list of acronyms and organizations and an author’s note are appended. EBONI NJOKU 

Promise Boys
by Nick Brooks 
High School    Holt    304 pp. 
1/23    9781250866974    $19.99 
e-book ed.  9781250866967    $10.99 

Principal Kenneth Moore is dead, shot in his office during a basketball game. The influential Black founder of the all-male Urban Promise Prep School and a pillar of the community, he sought to give the boys at his school a shot at college — at the cost of a draconian code of conduct. Three students of color — a talented basketball player, a bright college hopeful, and a budding culinary star and entrepreneur — are instant suspects in the crime, each with a motive for their principal’s demise. Thrown together by their in-common circumstances, these three young men must become quick allies as they race to investigate the case and attempt to clear themselves of any wrongdoing. Will justice be served or will they fall victim to a flawed system? A riveting murder mystery wrapped in social commentary, the novel offers a fresh, contemporary take on an old-fashioned whodunit. It also shines a light on the plight of Black and Latino youth, who are often the targets of an inequitable and unequal justice system. Told from multiple perspectives with interspersed ephemera and extended flashbacks, the story builds to an exhilarating crescendo. MONIQUE HARRIS 

Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay
by Kelly McWilliams 
High School    Little, Brown    320 pp. 
5/23    9780316449939    $18.99 
e-book ed.  9780316450133    $10.99 

Seventeen-year-old Harriet Douglass and her father live on modern-day Westwood Plantation, a Louisiana sugar plantation where enslaved Africans once lived, which is now one of the few plantation museums run by Black people. Since her mother’s death from cancer, Harriet runs tours with her historian father that keep the legacy of those who were captive on the land alive. But when new owners take over the plantation next door, Harriet is appalled to find out that they plan to turn it into a wedding venue. Even worse, her high school decides to host the prom there as well. Harriet campaigns via social media against the erasure and commodifying of the enslaved. Though burdened with grief over her mother’s death and righteous anger for the people whose memories she keeps alive through the museum, Harriet is a full, well-rounded character and an often amusing narrator. Themes of community, grief, mental health, activism, allyship, and racism are explored in the pursuit of reconciling and healing a difficult history. MONIQUE HARRIS 

Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim
by Patricia Park 
High School    Crown    304 pp. 
2/23    9780593563373    $18.99 
Library ed.  9780593563380    $21.99 
e-book ed.  9780593563397    $10.99 

“Who is the ‘real’ Alejandra Kim?” A high school senior at an affluent prep school, she has her heart set on attending the prestigious but expensive Whyder College while dealing with imposter syndrome as a multiracial young woman (and scholarship student) who asks, “Am I 100 percent Korean, 100 percent Latinx, and 100 percent American…all at the same time?” Amid insensitive friends and performative allies, and with the relentless need to code switch, Alejandra doesn’t really feel at home anywhere. The recent loss of her father means that her actual home life is difficult as well. Given an opportunity to participate in research transcribing immigrant stories, Alejandra begins to understand her parents’ experiences and thus discover her purpose and place in the world. It might mean a path other than Whyder, but one that is authentically hers. She navigates the flaming hoops of high school and emerges stronger and more confident, supported by her cultural studies teacher, a longtime friend in her Queens neighborhood, and an unexpected confidante at school. Park immerses readers in her fully realized protagonist’s complicated everyday existence, peppering her dialogue with insider New York references and untranslated family conversations in Spanish, expecting readers to keep up. Alejandra’s powerful story will leave readers with much to think about. J. ELIZABETH MILLS 

Miles Morales Suspended: A Spider-Man Novel
by Jason Reynolds; illus. by Zeke Peña 
Middle School, High School    Dlouhy/Atheneum    320 pp. 
5/23    9781665918466    $19.99 
e-book ed.  9781665918480    $10.99 

In the previous installment (Miles Morales, rev. 9/17), sixteen-year-old Miles (“Boricua and Black and Brooklyn as hell”) was bitten by a radioactive spider, became the latest Spider-Man, and defeated the Warden, head of an ancient white supremacist organization. Now he sits in In-School Suspension (ISS) for standing up to his racist history teacher, along with classmate Tobin Rogers, who is in ISS for removing books — Baldwin, Morrison, Angelou, Angie Thomas — from the school library. Even more weirdly, Tobin was eating the pages; all that were found were the books’ spines. Add a termite infestation at school for an intriguing puzzle for Miles to solve. This sequel is more multilayered than the first installment, with action-packed digital drawings, Miles’s first-person poems, and a third-person narrative all capturing a day in the life of Miles Morales — his neighborhood, his crush on Alicia Carson, his friendship with Ganke, and his conflicts with teachers. There is room, though, for a climactic action scene in the boys’ bathroom, where a creepy monster is thrillingly unmasked. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the August 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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