8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

“‘When I was little I thought God was like a superhero,’ I say, keeping my eyes down.  He doesn’t respond, so I look up.  ‘I wanted to be a superhero, too.  Not like I wanted to be God, I mean.  Just… you know.  I wanted to have some kind of power that zapped everything perfect.'” (page 111.  Quoted from ARC – language may change.)

That’s Reggie.  He writes about a superhero called Night Man, hangs out with his intensely socially-conscious best friend Ruthie, and mostly tries to stay out of the way in school. Apparently, he also likes to spend his time making unsuspecting librarians fall completely head-over-heels for him.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a character.  From the very first page, Reggie McKnight put some kind of vice grip around my heart and didn’t ever let go.

Reggie had no intention of running for class president.  In fact, ever since a public speaking incident on the first day of school that led to his nickname – Pukey – Reggie has done whatever he can to stay out of the spotlight.  He’s certainly not looking for responsibility – not in the school government, or at the homeless shelter where his church youth group volunteers.  But other people in his life recognize what Reggie does not – that his strong sense of empathy, his willingness to put others first, and his ability to work hard when he cares about a task make him a natural leader.  And while his parents, teachers, and friends have never forced leadership on him, they are more than willing to push Reggie along when he finally decides that he’s seen enough of the status quo and begins to seek out ways to foster change in his school and community.

My favorite thing about Reggie is his willingness to change his mind.  Not in a wishy-washy way – in an open-minded way that many adults still haven’t figured out.  And when he screws up – which he certainly does, sometimes – he has the guts and the grace to admit to his mistakes and work to fix them.  As Reggie figures out while talking to his partner in a Big Brother-type program,

‘Even Night Man makes mistakes.’

‘Even though he’s a superhero?’ asks Charlie.

‘Yeah,’ I say.  ‘Being brave enough to make mistakes is, um, um, part of what makes him a superhero.’ There’s a click in my brain when I say that. (page 184.  Quoted from ARC – language may change.)

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects – religion, unemployment, race, homelessness, and bullying are all part of Reggie’s story.  But Rhuday-Perkovich has a light touch, and works with these topics in a way that is very personal and never without humor.  Religion, for example, is an important part of Reggie’s life, and is written about in a way that is forthright and positive while still allowing space for questions and doubts – something that is too rare in books for children that have a religious element, which so often seem either blandly proselytizing or flatly anti-religion.  (On a side note – I do think this is changing, with wonderful books like this one, Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, and others coming out recently.)

While Reggie’s background as a Jamaican-American is central to who he is, it isn’t what the story is about.  Stories about slavery or racism can be great books, but those are stories that obviously can’t be told without characters of color – and those subjects are at the center of the majority of books for children that feature African-American characters.  This is a story that could easily have been told with a white protagonist, and it’s important that it wasn’t – kids of color have many experiences and stories to tell, and I hope that we will continue to see more and more books that reflect the variety of those stories.  (Especially if those books are as good as this one!)

While the topics that the book tackles are important and are handled with grace, it is the characters who make this book special.  Every character is nuanced, and almost every character surprised me at some point in the book.  The novel is populated by characters like Reggie’s father, with his hierarchy of Caribbean countries (and as a man of Jamaican ancestry, you can guess what country he puts on top!) and his frustration during a period of unemployment; George, an addict from the homeless shelter where Reggie volunteers who, despite his grumpiness, has an incredible capacity to create a feeling of hope in a tough situation; and Reggie’s older sister, who is transitioning from terrifying star-athlete to still-terrifying-but-maybe-not-really girly girl. But the core of the story is with Reggie and his two best friends, Ruthie and Joe C.  They’re three very different kids, and sometimes those differences can threaten to pull them apart – when Ruthie tries to forcibly drag her friends into her one-woman revolution, or when white Joe C. tries to teach his black best friends about the history of hip-hop, or when Reggie grows out of the project that was the initial connection between himself and Joe C.  But they are three truly good-hearted young people who care about each other deeply.  It is only with the support of this network of friends, family, church, and others that Reggie can grow into himself and become a confident young man.  They help him learn that he doesn’t have to be a superhero to make a difference in his world.

I know that it’s only January, but I cannot imagine many better books for young people being published in 2010.  In fact, I would count this among the best middle grade novels I have ever read.  One year from now, I hope that we will all be whispering about how 8th Grade-Superzero is poised to pick up some heavy hardware at the ALA Youth Media Awards.  (And now I’m off to bed so I can get up early for the ALA Youth Media Awards!)

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on the web.

Chameleon by Charles R. Smith Jr.

chameleonHey you!  Yeah, you sitting there reading this blog. Have you read Chameleon yet?  No?  Do me a favor – head down to your local indie bookstore or your branch library.  Yes, right now.  Come back when you’ve got a copy of this book.

Got it?  Good.

Shawn is a young man straddling the line between being a child and being a teen, between Compton and the suburbs, between middle school and high school.   And this summer he has a major decision to make.  He’ll be starting at high school in the fall, and his parents have given him the choice between the high school in Compton – where all his friends are, but where the Crips and the Pirus make trouble and the principal is rumored to use a paddle on students who act out – and a new high school near his mother’s suburban home in Carson – which is safer and probably has a lot more choices academically, but where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s a complicated choice, and Shawn is a thoughtful kid who is going to consider it from all sides – he casts it as a choice between “freedom or friendship” (page 228). 

But while Shawn’s choice is what drives the character growth in the novel, the story is carried by his day-to-day life.  The reader gets to tag along with Shawn and his goofy 13-year-old buddies while they shoot hoops, talk about girls, and eat everything in sight.  And with every one of these small events in Shawn’s day, the reader can feel him considering the different parts of his life.   The choice looming over him lend a weight to every thing that happens, allowing this book to chronicle even the smallest parts of his life without ever feeling trivial.

This is a book that starts with a yo mama joke.  It is the first thing on page one.  And there could be no better way to set the stage for the rest of the novel.  Because this is not a novel about what happens – there are a few exciting moments, including a fight between the Crips and the Pirus, but those larger events are not the heart of this book.  A quick, flirtatious conversation with a girl working the register at a burger joint is given as much narrative importance as the gang trouble Shawn encounters.  And that’s what I loved best about this book.  While it doesn’t shy away from the big issues of modern urban life – alcoholism, gang violence, urban blight – it’s not about them, either.  These things don’t define Shawn, and they are not the center of his life or the novel.  It is a story about being a young man in L.A. – about both the silly conversations and the big ones that make up Shawn’s life, about his doubts and his dreams.  And while those problems are there, the positive forces in Shawn’s life are strong – from his caring parents to his buddies who watch out for him. 

Since conversation is at the center of this book, it’s a good thing that Smith has such a pitch-perfect sense of the easy rhythm of boys.  The relaxed, free-flowing conversation feels exactly like something I would hear from some of the funnier guys in my library – and capturing that patter without sounding forced or fake is not an easy task.  In the final third of the book, when Shawn is with his family more than his three buddies, I missed their easy chatter.  The in-game descriptions of Shawn’s basketball games are also masterful – Smith creates a lot of excitement and movement in his prose during the pick-up games, and boy readers especially will be caught up in the flow of the action.

While all of the chatter between Shawn and his boys is engaging, realistic, and funny, the best of the bunch are the ones about sex.  These are young men on the cusp – old enough to be very aware of sex, but with a lot of curiousity and anxiousness underneath all the bravado.  When the older brother of one of Shawn’s buddies comes home from the Navy for shore leave, it sets the boys off on a hilariously raunchy, but still innocently 13-year-old, line of teasing conversation. 

I have only one concern about this book: I want more people to buy and read it.  If we want our boys to keep reading as the make the transition to being teens – and especially our African-American boys who live in urban neighborhoods – this is exactly the kind of book we need.  More books like this one to be written and published.   And if books like this don’t sell, that’s not going to happen.   I’ve been really impressed by the sudden availability of lots of books that appeal to urban teen girls, and we are seeing more of those books because they are  being purchased in large numbers.  I want that to happen with books like Chameleon, too.  So I’m going to go out and buy a couple of copies to pass on to friends.  And I’m going to buy copies for the library and booktalk the heck out of this one.  Will you join me?

Chameleon on the web.

Charles R. Smith, Jr. on the web.