Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.

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Review: We Speak for Ourselves

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…