YA – Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman

Lee, Kristen R. Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. Crown, 2022. 978-0-593-30915-5. $18.99. 326 p. Grades 9-12.

Savannah Howard is the golden girl of her poor Memphis neighborhood. Through hard work and focus, she earned a full scholarship to Wooddale, a prestigious Ivy League college. As one of the few Black students on campus, she makes friends quickly with upperclass students Natasha (Tasha) Carmichael, a light-skinned, well to do fashionista and aspiring lawyer; and Benjamin (Benji) Harrington, a local wealthy “high yellow” young man. Benji is a childhood friend of fellow student, Lucas Cunningham, a walking epitome of white privilege. One of the first incidents on campus Savannah witnesses is the vandalism of a statue of the only African American past presidents of the college. The non reaction of the university leaders to the blatant act of racism motivates Savannah to put in motion a campaign on social media, the school newspaper, and student forums to bring down the instigator and perpetrator of this racist behavior, Lucas Cunningham. Though she enlists the support of one of her African American professors as well as Tasha and Benji, the daily grind of uncovering the truth, being harassed – and even assaulted – by Lucas and his crew, and being snubbed by other classmates is exhausting. She grapples with Benji’s romantic attentions and his sometimes ambivalent actions toward her nemesis and, perhaps more importantly, with her decision to go to a predominantly white institution. The novel by Kristen R. Lee spans Savannah’s freshman year recounted with her own authentic voice. After she gives an interview on her professor’s podcast relating the injustices prevalent on campus and accusing the Cunninghams of manipulating the college admission process, she moves off campus to a toney neighborhood to board with the elderly widow, Mrs. Flowers, a self made entrepreneur. Lured back by students from a historically Black college to lead a peaceful protest, Savannah comes full circle, confident that she has stood for what is important and acknowledged by the university’s African American woman president. Her goal being reached, Savannah makes a critical decision for her future.

THOUGHTS: This novel takes on white privilege, racism, and microaggressions with which students of color can identify and white students can gain perspective. Author Kristen R. Lee has created a strong, female character who speaks her mind because she sees no alternative. She is ambitious and savvy, yet vulnerable and often scared. Her friends and the people who support her are all African American, but it is a small circle. The white students she forms acquaintances with turn out to be druggies, self-serving, deceitful, or racist (or any combination of those negative qualities). Save for Dr. Santos (the African American professor), the college’s administrators are weak, not enough, or oblivious. At the end of the book, Savannah gets called to Wooddale College president’s Architectural Digest-worthy home. The president is a Black woman; she informs Savannah she will be honored, and all the racist and unjust acts that happened during the year will be properly addressed. Savannah asks why the president didn’t come out earlier and confides her desire to leave Wooddale to attend a historically Black college. The president tells her that she has had to make some concessions to achieve what she has. That answer falls flat with the idealistic Savannah. Reading this book as a white person is uncomfortable–not a bad thing. To quote an old phrase, Lee “tells it like it is,” a truth to be embraced by every reader.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke School District of Philadelphia

YA – Kneel

Buford, Candace. Kneel. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-40251-6. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Kneel follows Russell who is a talented football player from a small town looking for a full ride scholarship to escape. However, Russell’s teammate and best friend, Marion is unfairly arrested and then benched for the rest of the season, Russell decides to take a stand.  In doing so, Russell sets off a chain of events that he never saw coming and refuses to back down from. In the end, will Russell be able to enact the social change that his community desperately needs, or will he have to pick between social justice and football?

THOUGHTS: This was amazingly written, and felt extremely realistic. I enjoyed that each character felt unique to me, in how they dealt with racism as well as how they interacted with each other. This wasn’t too technical with football, which I appreciated as someone who isn’t familiar with football.  I would highly recommend this for a high school collection, and feel this would also make a great book to teach in a high school literature class.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

When practice runs late, Russell and Marion know that breaking down on the parish line between Monroe (their side of town) and Westmond (the wealthier side of town) is not the best spot to be. A few weeks ago the untimely death of teen Dante Maynard, who was killed by a white police officer for “looking suspicious,” rocked the local black community. The fact that Russell’s car could draw unwanted attention for its condition doesn’t add to his limited options as darkness approaches. Instead of the cops, though, Bradley Simmons, a varsity football player from Westmond, pulls up in a shiny BMW, and he taunts Russell and Marion about last year’s playoff whipping which ended with Marion being seriously injured and jeopardizing his football future. The pent up frustration doesn’t end, and animosity explodes when Monroe meets Westmond at center field for the coin toss. Unfair, one-sided refereeing leaves Russell injured. To make matters even worse, the cop that killed Dante Maynard is on game security, and he takes Marion off the field in cuffs. Though Russell promises Marion he’ll “handle this,” the deck is stacked against the boys, their team, and their community. Due to his pending charges, Marion is benched and barred from the team until his situation is resolved. In an instant, his only way out disappears. Russell realizes the only way to take a stand is to take a knee, and the repercussions of his action are more than he imagined. If the only way out of his situation is through a Division I football scholarship, what lengths will Russell go to in order to earn his spot, and will he have to give up his beliefs to make it happen?

THOUGHTS: Timely and thoughtful, Kneel transports readers right into the racial tensions. Readers will feel for Russell and be angered by the actions and the lack of action from local authorities. A must have for high school collections, this title also would pair well with classics and other contemporary titles dealing with similar topics.

Realistic Fiction         Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD