Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on February 3, 2015
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.
In her inspired YA debut, Renée Watson explores the experience of young African-American women navigating the traditions and expectations of their culture.
Some books are just too gorgeous to talk about for a certain period of time after you read them. Every time you try, all the emotions come rushing back in and you choke up like I did that time I was in my school musical in sixth grade (don’t ask anything about it because it ties into the horrible story of one of my brother’s ex-girlfriends). This Side of Home is one such book. All I could say about it in a creative writing class was “It’s like a punch in the nose. Y’know, a good one” the day I finished it. AND IT IS. This Side of Home is the best punch in the nose I’ve ever gotten from a YA novel.
I consider myself a woman well-educated on intersectional feminism and the problems communities like Maya and Nikki’s face, like the censure Nikki faces from her friends and family because they think she acts “too white” for a black girl and how the residents of a black community are alienated from their own world when white families start moving in and taking over black businesses. Some of what Maya points out relates to stuff I already know, but she has such a biting way of putting it that it feels like a startlingly new revelation. For instance, we have this gem of a line:
“You can say all you want that race doesn’t matter, but the reaction to those posters that hang on our school walls says it does, and Principal Green’s overcompensation to make the white kids feel included says it does.” (ARC, p.234)
Heck, have this one too, which comes after the new principal trashes the Black History Month tradition the mostly-black high school usually does in favor of a diversity assembly meant to include EVERYONE:
“I think celebrating diversity is fine, but not in the place of honoring black history. February is only twenty-eight days; they can at least give us that.” (ARC, p. 187)
These are just two of the many brilliant nuggets This Side of Home has to offer and I agree with every single one of them, especially the above diversity quote. In a single month out of the year meant to educate and celebrate black history, I don’t want to be accommodated as a white woman. In movements toward diversity, I don’t expect or want white people as a whole to be accommodated. For all our lives, we have been able to see our own stories and triumphs reflected back at us. For once, we need to be at the window seeing what else is out there and becoming better people for it.
One line from another character about how of course the sleazy street got named for Martin Luther King Jr. hit home for me. My mom remarked once that all the MLK Jr. streets she’d ever been on or seen seemed to be bad streets and implied it was because of who the street was named after that was so. Maybe it’s because the cities decided these bad streets were ones to name after one of the greatest men in the history of the United States?
Anyway. Maya’s characterization as a tireless activist whose frustration with how little her work seems to mean is brilliant and powerful. All she wants is for her community to get better without being gentrified by white people first, but everything seems to be working against her. That kind of pushback could make anyone give up, but Maya’s stubborn as can be even when she’s forced to recognize that very few people are as fired up about the issues as she is.
I’ve got a few issues with the shallow characterization of new girl Cynthia and the hate on her, but it’s something I’m willing to forgive because the benefits and great points of the novel are so much greater. It’s so much more beautiful to see how proud Maya is of her heritage and how little she doubts it even when her sister and best friend are drifting away from her and questioning themselves. It’s not an easy read, but every last word of it is necessary and gorgeous.
God, what else can I say about this book? It’s not something you hear someone talk about; it’s an experience you need to have yourself. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to cry, but you have to hold in your tears or else your mascara will get all on your face and you’ll look deranged. It’s the kind of book that gives away the fact you’re reading during a meeting because it gives you shivers like seizures (true story, by the way). It’s the kind of book that makes you tear up just trying to write a review about it.
“Stories about POC characters don’t sell,” some say. “The wider reading population can’t relate to them.” Well, that’s horse crap and also true because when we have no books about POC characters, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy from hell. I can’t remember who I heard it from or where I read it, but books are like mirrors and windows, but the mirrors mostly reflect white teens right now and POC are looking at those white characters through windows. Books like this one will provide a smart, much-needed mirror for the people who really need it. Read This Side of Home. Please, please read it because you may not find a smarter YA novel out there right now.