Book Review & Author Interview: The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

“First a memory: the hillside set ablaze….”

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Release Date: August 4, 2020

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Price: $15.05 (hardback)

Plot Summary:

Los Angeles, 1992

Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.

Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.

As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.

With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?

Grade: A-

Review:

The Black Kids is a timely read that spares no emotional punches. Ashley is a sassy, funny, rich girl who has always attended private school with her rich white friends. She doesn’t know exactly what reality less fortunate black people actually live through day in and day out. Sure, she sometimes has dealt with racism, if even subtle by her own friends, but she’s never had to live in dire circumstances like her own cousins. But when the Rodney King riots set the city of Los Angeles ablaze, Ashley can no longer ignore the flames of injustice. For the first time in her life, she has to confront her past, what it means to be a black girl, and figure out who her true friends are. I enjoyed this book because Ashley’s POV was no only blunt but hella funny. I like that Ashley’s character isn’t free of faults, she does some pretty questionable things within the course of the novel but ultimately she tries to make amends where she can and where it counts.

I don’t know if the author has intentions of writing a sequel, but I wouldn’t be against one. Especially if we were to get a book written in LaShawn’s POV (he’s a secondary character in the novel, a black kid who attends the rich kids’ private school because of his sports scholarship). Out of all the characters in the book, he was ultimately the star (much to Ashley’s dismay, since in the beginning of the novel she kinda resents the fact that he’s both smart and charismatic and is going to her dream college).

Pick up this book for timely issues and 90’s nostalgia, you won’t be disappointed.

*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Photo by: Elizabeth T. Nguyen

Short Q&A With Author:

I read that you started writing the novel The Black Kids five years ago. How does it feel that the subject matter of the book is now more timely than ever?

So it’s funny, I actually originally started thinking of the idea for The Black Kids as a thesis film when I was in grad school back in 2010, and ultimately decided against it. When I took a break from screenwriting in 2016, I decided to return to my first love of writing fiction and the short story version of The Black Kids just poured out of me. It felt more imperative than ever given the rise of Black Lives Matter and the fact that smartphones had made it such that we were seeing the effects of unequal policing first hand, literally in our hands and on our televisions. I had no idea that it would feel as timely as it does 2020, which is frustrating, but I also take comfort in the fact that now more than before, non-Black people seem to be trying to seek out and understand Black voices, and to actually be not just passive allies, but advocates for change in meaningful ways.

Female friendships are sometimes difficult. Ashley and Kimberly were childhood friends, but many times we outgrow out childhood friends. Do you think women are more likely to feel an obligated sense of loyalty towards a childhood friend despite not having anything in common with them anyone as they grow older?

I do think women are more likely to push to maintain friendships because women are more likely to have actively nurtured those friendships for years and years. Plus female friendships are so powerful when you’re younger, there’s an almost romantic fervor to them that’s only intensified by the fact that you’re experiencing all these major life changes together in such a relatively short time. When you write “best friends forever” in gel pens in a yearbook, or across each other’s arms in marker, you mean it, and many of us actively work to maintain that promise even when those friendships are toxic, or no longer serve us.

Music played a major role in the novel (or at least Ashley was always listening to songs in many scenes). Were you listening to any artist in particular when working on The Black Kids?

Almost all of the songs that made it into the book were songs that I was listening to as I was writing to transport myself back to the era. Also, randomly, I was listening to a lot of Frank Ocean, especially the songs “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” which I think are really evocative of the first few chapters before the riots begin. I was also listening to a lot of SZA and Lorde to get myself in the headspace of what it feels like to be a teenager/young woman. A lot of Hole and N.W.A. to capture Jo’s defiance in my head. Also, randomly a lot of Bowie, and Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers. In my head, they actually speak to Ashley’s feelings of not quite fitting in or feeling unmoored in some ways throughout the book. Each character definitely has their own soundscape.

Your novel sheds a light on racism, what lesson do you hope your young readers will take away from reading this novel?

I really view this novel first and foremost as a coming-of age-novel. It’s about Ashley making huge mistakes and learning from them how to be a good daughter, friend, sister, and person. I purposefully wrote her to be super flawed because I think that’s important for young readers and adults alike, especially, when it comes to issues around race. It’s ok if we don’t have all the answers immediately, if we do or say the wrong things, so long as we learn and grow from those mistakes and resolve to move through the world being better, more thoughtful, and more empathetic.

What books do you recommend to your readers if they’re wanting to support Black authors?

First and foremost, I would say that Black authors are authors, period. There are Black authors doing great work across genres, some of which engage with questions of race, some of which don’t. So to those of my readers who are non-Black, diversifying your reading really means just stepping outside your comfort zone within your particular genres of interest to make space for other voices. Don’t dismiss something as written by an author of color as something you won’t relate to. Most of us aren’t women in 19th century Britain in love with a brute with his mad wife in the attic. And yet, people don’t use that to dismiss Jane Eyre. Also, to paraphrase what my friend Nic said in an article – don’t only read books about Black people being oppressed, but also read about our joy.

All that said, Queenie by Candice Carty Williams is really great if you’re looking for something literary, but really funny. It also packs an unexpected emotional punch and delves into mental health issues. Luster has gotten a lot of deserved attention for putting a fresh spin on the struggling millennial in New York story. I really love Zone One by Colson Whitehead, and The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. Zone One is a literary zombie apocalypse book and The Devil in Silver is slow burn literary horror that takes place in an insane asylum. Both are nerve-wracking. Lot by Bryan Washington is a beautiful collection of short stories by a queer young Black man from Texas. We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenridge, is a not easily characterized, but it’s a coming of age story involving a family and a chimp in an institution in Massachusetts, and explores scientific experimenting in the recent past as it relates to historical scientific experimenting on Black bodies. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is an amazing non-fiction work about the Great Migration. The middle grade book The Only Black Girls in Town, I think actually shares a lot in common with my novel. And YA right now is an absolute treasure trove of Black voices across sexual orientation, religious and gender identities.

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