The Book Jam Blog
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Many, many great lists of books have been curated to help us all better understand racism and how we each need to be and do better. And, we have noticed many of them focus on non-fiction works. So rather than recreate those great lists - including this one from the Norwich Bookstore, we thought we'd share some great works of fiction that we believe can help us all learn from people whose experiences differ from our own (in our case, as two white women living in New England). We offer this in the sincere hope that the experience of reading these books creates empathy, understanding, and change (and brings some of the joy possible from reading a good book).
Some Fiction for Adults
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019) - In this compact and powerful novel, National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson deftly explores issues of race, class, identity, and sexuality. In just under 200 pages she manages to convey generations of information about Iris and Aubrey, two Black teenagers in New York whose families are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy and the birth of their daughter Melody. It is narrated in alternating chapters by Melody, Iris, and Aubrey, as well as their parents who have among them survived race riots in Tulsa, rebuilt lives, struggled with poverty, attended college, and landed in very different economic locations. What results is a moving portrait of two families whose members both young and old have disparate voices, varied dreams, and whose identities have been shaped by very different influences. This complicated past converges in the no less fraught present at the beginning of the novel on the eve of Melody’s fifteenth birthday in a brownstone in Brooklyn. These beautifully drawn characters are sure to stay with readers long after they have turned the last page. When interviewed by Trevor Noah in October 2019 on “The Daily Show,” Woodson offered that she hoped for readers of her book to “fall in love with the characters and [that] it makes them want to create some kind of change.” I share her hope. Highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019) - One of the most devastating and beautiful books I have read in a long time. I knew I would emerge from these pages troubled from the very first description of Elwood (the very first boy described in this novel) and his arrest. I was also troubled knowing the stories in this book are based on true stories of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years. So like Millie in the final chapters, I took breaks from learning about what happened to Elwood and Turner (in my case by reading magazine articles and children's books). Please don't let this deter you from picking this novel up and reading the tales of The Nickel Boys - boys sent to a fictional juvenile reformatory during the Jim Crow era in the South. ~ Lisa Christie
The Travelers: A Novel by Regina Porter (2019) - This book has an energy I can't describe adequately. However, my inadequacy is irrelevant as what matters is that this energy and Ms. Porter's prose had me rapidly turning pages of this debut novel; I really, really wanted to know what happened to each of the many characters. And by "many characters", I mean that the cast list at the beginning of the novel, reminiscent of the copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead one of the characters keeps carrying around, proved extremely useful in tracking who is who. Ms. Porter deftly moves her plot and her abundance of characters between decades in a delightful, surprising, and circular motion while she portrays two main families - one black and one white - navigating the decades from the Civil Rights Movement to Obama's presidency. Ms. Porter's tale employs wit and compassion, two things I believe we can call use more of these days. But, perhaps most importantly, as The Guardian Review of this debut states, this novel reminds us that "we are all both the heroes of our own stories and the extras in other people’s". ~ Lisa Christie
There There by Tommy Orange (2018, paperback 2019) - The writing in Tommy Orange's debut novel is forceful and builds a percussive momentum as the story progresses, perhaps not unlike the beat of a drum at a Native American Powwow. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the author himself majored in sound engineering as an undergraduate before working in a bookstore and falling in love with reading and writing. There There explores identity and sense of place, telling the story of twelve characters, mostly urban Native Americans, all living in Oakland, California. Their lives are braided together though it is not until the end, at the Oakland Powwow, that the reader understands just how. From the outset, it is clear that things won't end well. However, the beauty of the prose, the poignant stories of the individuals it tells, and the insights and honesty it offers into the Native American experience compel one to read to the painful, shocking finish. Orange's work has received a great deal of publicity since it was published in 2018. Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston have both sung its praises. The New York Times named it one if the "10 Best books of the Year" in 2018. It was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. These kinds of reviews can be off-putting to the casual reader, the hype overwhelming, the literariness of it all stopping one before the first page can even be turned. Don't let this get in the way of reading such an important and accessible book. For me it was one of those "shape shifters," a work that helped me to understand our culture and history in a different, richer (though not easier or more comfortable) way. ~ Lisa Cadow
August Snow and Lives Laid Away by Stephen Mack Jones (2019) - I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Jones's debut August Snow. So I was excited to see that Lives Laid Away brings August Snow, a superbly wrought ex-police officer turned “fixer” - of neighborhoods, of people and of mysteries - back. His own background as a biracial individual adds nuance to the unraveling of various mysteries. I was also thrilled that I liked this second in what I hope is a long series. (Book #3 Dead of Winter arrives in the Spring of 2021.) Detroit itself is a character in both books I've read thusfar, with its gentrification and the tensions that causes front and center. ~ Lisa Christie
Some YA Fiction
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (2017) – A superb YA novel about being profiled by police officers for being black, and how BLM and politics affect black youth. In this excellent debut novel, a black student – Justyce McAllister, top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year – is handcuffed by a police officer and released without physical harm. The psychological toll of being profiled is explored as this novel delves into his life at his mostly white prep school and in his mostly black neighborhood. To help cope, Justyce researches the writings of MLK and writes him letters asking for guidance about how to live today. While Martin obviously never answers, the letters provide a great premise for thinking about how MLK would have handled life as a black man today. The letters also provide grounding once the novel’s action turns extremely ugly. Read it and discuss. (For shorthand, it could be considered the boy’s perspective on the situations in The Hate U Give.) ~ Lisa Christie
Clap When You Land by Elisabeth Acevedo (2020) - This book, told in alternating chapters to ensure we see each of the main character's perspective, shares the stories of two girls (one in NYC and one in the Dominican Republic) who discover they share the same father when a plane he is on plunges into the ocean. As could be predicted, the half sisters are different. Yahaira is a dark skinned chess champion living with her parents in New York with a girlfriend who conveniently is also her next door neighbor. Camino is tethered to her love of the ocean, living with her aunt, and navigating the exclusive prep school her father pays for with money from his work in the USA. The book explores, secrets, differences, and love. This is the third YA book by Ms. Acevedo that I have read and LOVED, moving her into favorite author territory for me. ~ Lisa Christie
Frankly In Love by David Yoon (2019) - I was surprised how this apparently simple (and familiar - hello Romeo and Juliet) story of first love that does not meet with parental approval, as well as of navigating the final year of high school made me smile and tear-up a bit. Some plot points: Frank Li and Joy Song have been friends since childhood, attending regularly scheduled dinners with a larger group of Korean-American families in Los Angeles for as long as they have a memory of any event. As they navigate senior year, they are both in love with the "wrong" (not-Korean) person. They decide to fake that they are dating each other to keep their parents happy, while still seeing their true loves. Their elaborate scheming provides the plot for this novel's terrific cast of characters. (I truly loved Frank's superb best friend.) And while Buzzfeed aptly stated, “Yoon's stellar debut expertly and authentically tackles racism, privilege, and characters who are trying to navigate their Korean-American identity”, I would argue you should read it for the fun. Give it to your favorite teen or your favorite adult in need of a smile or two (and distraction from the news). ~ Lisa Christie
Before We Were Free by Julia Alverez (2002) - By now perhaps a classic, this slim novel explores revolution, dictatorship, and immigration. Set in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, this novel is told through the eyes of Anita, a pre-teen whose uncle has disappeared without a trace, whose other relatives have mostly left for life in the USA, and whose immediate family is being closely watched by the government. The tale follows the decisions she must make to find freedom. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Here to Stay by Sara Farizhan (2018) - In this great book about high school life, the main character, Bijan Miajidi, is pulled from the obscurity of JV basketball to the varsity limelight, which he hopes will help make it easier to talk to his crush Elle. Instead, he is targeted by an internet photo doctored to make him appear as a terrorist. As he tells the story of what happens next, his narrator voice is joined by his internal narrators - ESPN commentators Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan - providing color commentary and comic relief to the often difficult events of the novel. In short, Ms. Farizhan compassionately and effectively covers coming out stories, cyberbullying, pressure to get into the right colleges, sports, and racism, without preaching, in a true page-turner. ~ Lisa Christie
Counting Coup by Larry Colton (2001) - Ok this is non fiction but we snuck it in as its exploration of life for many Native Americans in the USA through the lens of a basketball playing teen, has stayed with us for almost 20 years. In this book, Mr. Colton journeys into the world of Montana’s Crow Indians and follows the struggles of a talented, moody, charismatic young woman basketball player named Sharon. This book far more than just a sports story – it exposes how Native Americans have long since been cut out of the American dream. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
A Few Titles For Younger Readers
Look Both Ways: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (2020) - One of my now high school son's favorite authors from elementary school was/is Jason Reynolds. His latest book for kids - Look Both Ways explores ordinary walks home, their humor, and how if you pay attention, they can be pretty spectacular - even the inevitable unsuccessful and often painful detours. (We have reviewed books by Mr. Reynolds on multiple posts; you might want to also look at our 2019 post - https://www.bookjamvermont.com/kids-at-heart/ya-for-all-who-love-good-books for additional kids titles.) Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Who Is What Was series (assorted years) - This series for early readers offers biographies and historical stories highlighting many individuals from many backgrounds and cultures. Enjoy working your way through them. (Bonus: many titles are available in Spanish.) ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper (2015) - My family discovered this book on a 2015 trip to DC with a visit to Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, showing that exploring an indie bookstore can lead to amazing things. (The audiobook version was our soundtrack for the car trip back home to Vermont.) We have since recommended it to every kid we know. Stella lives in segregated North Carolina. There are stores she can enter and stores she can not; people are kind or they are not. But the Klan hasn't been around for awhile. Then late one night she and her brother see something they are not supposed to see and her world is forever changed. I also recommend Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming for a look at being a kid with brown skin in the 1960s and 1970s. The New York Times also curated a great list of other books to help you speak with kids about race. ~ Lisa Christie
For those of you trying to find a good place to explore privilege, we recommend Peggy McIntosh's short 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, as a good starting point for understanding white privilege. We also highly recommend Emily Bernard's 2019 book Black Is The Body, whose essays pointedly unfold the effects of racism in white spaces (like Vermont).
Again, we sincerely hope these title help you find great books to read, as well as resources to navigate racism, inequity, and difference.