This post is in collaboration with Hear Our Voices Book Tours. Thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed is a Young Adult Historical Fiction novel set in Los Angelos in 1992 during the thick of the Rodney King protests and riots. Rodney King was a Black man who was brutally beaten by LA police officers, and at the time of this novel, those officers were acquitted of all charges. It was this decision of acquittal that set off the Rodney King protests and riots in Los Angelos. Our protagonist Ashley is fully aware of her Blackness and juxtaposition in the world, even though she attends a ritzy predominantly White private school. She is one of a few other Black kids at this school, and her main group of friends consist of three White girls and two White guys. Even though Ashley is the only Black person in her friend group, that has never seemed to bother her, even when her friends make slightly off-color jokes or don’t recognize their absolute privilege in the world. At home, Ashley’s dealing with the absence of her old sister Jo, who has moved out and begins to become involved in the protests. When Ashley becomes entangled in a scandal that threatens the future of one of the Black kids at her school and her sister becomes even more ensnared in the protests and riots, Ashley has to think really hard about who she is as a Black girl and what that means in different situations.
WHAT I LIKED
This novel could have easily been about a Black girl who “didn’t know she was Black until something popped off,” and I am SO GLAD it wasn’t. As you move through the novel, you might find yourself wondering why Ashley does or doesn’t do the things you want her to do, but at some point, you realize: Ashley is just trying to survive as a Black person in a White environment. This was the most relatable aspect of her character, and as Ashley comes up against casual racism in her everyday life, you begin to sympathize for her. She is an incredibly flawed character who knows she is flawed and consciously tries to be a better person. She makes mistakes that make you want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, which I think is pretty realistic for when dealing with teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world.
In Ashley’s relationship with her sister Jo, we are given an inside look at the complex reality of growing up with an older sibling whose shadow you are constantly not in. Because Ashley’s parents do not understand their eldest daughter, Ashley must constantly be better and do better. She is stuck between wanting her parents to be happy and wanting her sister to be happy, and she realizes very early on that, at the present moment, both of those things cannot be true at the same time. What I loved about their sister relationship the most was that they fought, they made up, they fought again, but they never stopped being there for one another. The author uses flashbacks quite a bit throughout the novel to show us defining moments in Ashley’s life, and I think these flashbacks are crucial in understanding Jo as a character and as a big sister. As I came into contact with Jo more and more throughout the novel, she very quickly became my favorite character of the entire book. Jo is unflinching in her honesty and her devotion to her people, and she does not hesitate to make her stances known, even when her manner of doing things directly opposes their parents’ quiet way of existence.
In terms of the structure of this novel, I appreciate that the first quarter of the book does not directly deal with the riots. We are aware of what is happening and the impending decision, but the author gives us a very detailed look into Ashley and her life. This was especially important because, then we have a very clear understanding of how Ashley’s life and relationships shift over the course of the novel and the duration of the riots. As mentioned before, Reed uses flashbacks to give us perspective about Ashley and how she became who she is when we meet her. It is in these flashbacks that we meet her best friends, understand her current romantic situation, and learn about the dynamic between her parents and her sister. The flashbacks are neatly folded into the story, and I appreciated how they weren’t necessarily separate chapters that broke from the form, but were woven into present moments. The flashbacks felt like memories should: they were triggered by something in Ashley’s present moment that made her reflect back on a defining memory, and we as the readers just happen to be privy to that moment.
Christina Hammonds Reed’s writing is so easy to just slide into, and you are immediately dropped back into high school. Everything a senior girl would be thinking about in those last few months of school is front and center, but at the same time, Ashley is still very aware of what’s happening in the outside world. The development of Ashley’s character throughout the novel is a realistic back and forth; her progress as a character is not a straight line, but rather a series of ups and downs that are both infuriating but understandable. Among this engrossing writing that had me unable to put this book down are also moments of beautiful poetic language that tugs at your heartstrings and has you rereading passages. Reed’s writing is the perfect balance of engaging, familiar, and poetic.
WHAT COULD’VE BEEN BETTER
There’s a romantic relationship that takes place with one of the friends in Ashley’s friend group, and we get no real resolution to that entire situation. The height of this romantic relationship happens at the height of the riots and protests, so it’s obvious that Ashley’s attention is elsewhere; however, I would have liked this wrapped up a bit better in the resolution of the book.
This is a novel about a Black girl in L.A. who finds herself suddenly super aware of her place in the world and how she fits into it. Trying to be a better person whilst also just being a teenage girl whose worried about crushes, college, and family drama amidst racial tensions, Ashley goes through some major growing pains. She is by far not a perfect character, and I love that. Black girls do not have to be perfect or be striving for perfection in order to deserve the same respect and support as our non-Black counterparts. I highly recommend this novel, and I’m excited for it to come into the world.
The Black Girls by Christina Hammonds Reed is out August 4th.
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