I Am Alfonso Jones

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This is a marvellously executed journey through the life, death and afterlife of one Alfonso Jones, high-school student, Harlem resident, trumpet-player and bike messenger.  In the early pages of the book we get to know Alfonso as a kid, smart, funny, a history enthusiast who takes us on a tour of Harlem’s sites. We learn that his father has been in jail for Alfonso’s whole life on a wrongful charges and is about to be released due to new DNA evidence. We meet the friend he has a crush on, Danetta, and witness the beginnings of a hip-hop Hamlet his drama class are staging.

Devastatingly, Alfonso is shot by police while shopping for a new suit to wear at the welcome home party for his father. He finds himself aboard a ghost train, populated with other victims of police brutality, taking a ride back through his past, right from the circumstances of his own father’s wrongful arrest and his birth to his own funeral and the subsequent street protests and learning what the chant: ‘no justice, no peace’ means to these trapped souls.

This is all so real and might be overwhelmingly painful, were it not for Alfonso himself, who remains a funny, sassy, very real teen, attending open-mic nights in the afterlife to check no one else is moving on his gal Danetta and hanging around his home trying to make his mother aware of his presence.

The ending, as in real life, doesn’t give us any easy answers, but along the way Medina, Robinson and Jennings give us an education without sparing us the pain of loss and remembrance. 14+

Here’s a link to the book trailer

 

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Planet Middle School

 

Nikki Grimes’s Planet Middle School, originally published in 2011 comes out next year with a brand new cover. This short verse novel tells the tale of Joylin, a tomboy who likes her jeans, basketball and her friends KeeLee and Jake and her life just the way it is:

Up till now,

the math of my life

has been pretty simple:

friends

plus family

plus sports

What more

could I ask for, right?

But now Joy’s body is changing, she needs to wear a bra (yeuch) has a crush on the new boy at school, starts her period:

That’s a good name for it.

It’s the end of life

as I know it.

Grimes’s simple, elegant free verse deals deftly with changes: changing bodies, changing friendships and changing feelings. A great class text and a lovely, warm, immediate read for kids entering adolescence.

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The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

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If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for a kid between seven and say eleven, the kind of kid who likes realistic stories with families, pets, enterprise, fun and perhaps a little heartbreak, I have found the book for you.

It looks beautiful with that gorgeous cover (there’s even a map!) Christmas day features prominently and more importantly it is beautifully told and imagined.

The Vanderbeekers are a family of diverse heritage with a mother, father, four girls and a boy and numerous pets, the star of this book being Paganini the rabbit. When their reclusive landlord, Mr Beiderman, who lives upstairs, decides not to renew their lease, the children unite in a campaign to save their home. Cue shenanigans: the kids involve the entire neighbourhood as well as a precious violin and a stray kitten as they uncover the truth about the Beiderman.

Gorgeous. 7+

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When Morning Comes

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When Morning Comes was published last year by Tradewind Books, a small Canadian publisher committed to multicultural children’s publishing and flew completely under my radar. It’s a timely novel, with nationalism, white oppression and the struggles of the marginalised making headlines in the US and the UK.

I was a child in the seventies, a teenager in the eighties and the anti-apartheid struggle was very much in the news and in our consciousness as we sang along to the Special AKA and stopped buying South African oranges.

But even I only had vague recollections of the Soweto uprising, without full knowledge of its historical context,  the utterly repressive regime it protested against and the trigger it became for the antiapartheid movement.

This is a fictional account told in four voices: two black teens from Soweto, Zanele and Thabo, Meena, a South African Indian schoolgirl and Jack a wealthy white kid. Reading it  was both an education and an eye-opener.

The novel is short, carefully crafted and told at a compelling pace with the protagonists’ voices remaining distinct, as these four kids from very different walks of life cross paths.

I don’t have a detailed enough knowledge of South Africa to comment on how authentic or otherwise the world depicted is, or how accurate the history is and I’d love to read some South African reviewer perspectives.

A really interesting read, a stunning debut and a book I’d like to see more widely talked about and read in the U.K. 12+

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Rebel Seoul

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Rebel Seoul has been described as Pacific Rim meets K-Drama, which is entirely valid, though the film it reminded me most of was Bladerunner.

I loved this futuristic action thriller’s dystopian rain-soaked feel and all the noir-ish elements–no one is quite who they seem to be.

Our hero is Lee Jaewon, abandoned son of a rebel father, who’s hidden his history, got himself out of gang life and into a sought-after military placement.

It turns out his assignment is to guard a top-secret project–a girl named Tera, with drug-induced superpowers–a supersoldier, for use in the continuous war that has raged in the Neo State (which comprises China, Japan and Korea) for decades.

Protecting Tera means loner Jaewon has to finally decide which side he’s on: rebel or state military. The story doesn’t shy away from ethical questions and complexities: smart teens may be sucked in by the video games, giant mecha and relationships but they’ll stay for the fast-paced plot and great protagonist.

A fantastic read for 12+

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A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars

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A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is a stunning new magic-realist YA fantasy by Yaba Badoe featuring fourteen year old circus bareback rider and shipwreck survivor, Sante. Sante came to Europe from Africa and has visions of the wreck and her discovery by Priss the golden eagle, who, along with Mama Rose and her circus, has been her protector ever since.

When two strange men show an interest in Sante as the troupe passes through Cadiz, Sante’s visions of the past grow more insistent and she longs to find out more of her Ghanaian parents, who drowned in the shipwreck. But uncovering the truth involves exposing a child-smuggling racket, tangling with some extremely nasty criminals and revealing that everything Mama Rose and the other adults in the circus have told her might just be a lie…

I picked up this book on impulse in Foyles and I’m so glad I did, I loved the interwoven contemporary elements, the teen protagonist and her strange, wild friends and the gorgeously evoked elements of African magic or animist realism.

Here is a short video of Yaba Badoe introducing her story:

Yaba Badoe

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You Bring the Distant Near

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You Bring the Distant Near is a book that really resonated with the experiences of my own family and friends growing up. Which may not seem on the surface, the highest recommendation, but as a UK national of South Asian origin, this hardly ever happens.

But hang on! Aren’t there a multitude of’British Asian’ authors? What about the Rushdies and Kureishis? What about Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Meera Syal? What about newer voices like Gautam Malkani?
There are a few reasons why I think this wonderful YA book is different.

First off, let’s talk about mangoes. It’s well-known that books about the subcontinental diaspora must contain exotic fruit, spices and food talk generally, lyrical writing, many saris (or salwars). Women are downtrodden, often enduring forced marriages leavened with the occasional extra-marital affair or running away. Men (young men particularly) are allowed to struggle with their cultural identity either rejecting it or becoming drawn towards fundamentalism or gangs.
This book is different.

There are four voices here and they are ALL Asian teenage girls or young women. They include a wannabe actress who wears miniskirts in 1960s London, an Indian girl who loves her Indian self and can’t understand what’s supposed to be so great about America, a feminist who shaves her head and marries ‘out’ and the gorgeous mixed Asian African-American daughter of radical parents who finds herself falling in love with a WASP who drives a red Porsche.

The book spans generations and continents and the tragedies that make up all our lives, from the death of a beloved father to the everyday estrangement that migration brings.
The womens’ identities evolve and shift as in real life–even the grandmother, the matriarch of the story.
This is us.
This is what we do, because forging an identity for yourself in the face of migration, racism, prejudice and cultural expectations is ongoing work. It never ends.
And this book expresses that beautifully.

12+, but this is one for all ages.

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