American Street by Ibi Zoboi

The comparison titles alone made me thrilled to finally read this book: “For fans of Everything, EverythingBone Gap, and All-American Boys.”

And American Street lived up to its comps, telling the gorgeous and gut-wrenching story of Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian immigrant adapting to life in Detroit on the corner of Joy Road and American Street.

When Fabiola and her mom enter the US, Fabiola’s mother is detained, setting off a series of tangled-up events that complicate Fabiola’s new American life. The novel offers a beautiful portrayal of religion, and it doesn’t take any easy outs when it comes to exploring right and wrong and the things we’re called to do for our families.

American Street Cover
AMERICAN STREET––PUBLISHED BY BALZER + BRAY

Here are a few things writers can learn from American Street.

Use the specific to capture the universal.

I’m an immigrant with an experience that couldn’t be more different from Fabiola’s. Yet there’s so much about her story that resonates with me. This speaks to the strength of Zoboi’s craft. There’s a special kind of loneliness, confusion, and wonder in navigating daily life in a culture and language that’s not your own. Zoboi captures this brilliantly, using the specific details of Fabiola’s situation to evoke the search for one’s identity amidst a fluctuating idea of home.

Shortly after arriving to Detroit, Fabiola takes in the view:

“The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks, or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place gray and brown. Only a thin white sheet of snow covers the burned-out houses and buildings. The flakes seem to appear from out of nowhere, like an invisible hand sprinkling salt onto zombies.”

The foreignness of the scene permeates everything. The language is so vivid and specific that even readers who are more familiar with snowy cityscapes than they are with the colors of Port-au-Prince will see this bleak new world through Fabiola’s eyes.

Fabiola’s struggles with English also affect her relationship to her new surroundings. Zoboi offers up one of the best portrayals of the language learning process that I’ve read in a novel thus far. (For another, I highly recommend Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.)

Fabiola’s frustrations and achievements with English make even the smallest encounter––bumping into someone on the street, for example––a whole lot more complicated:

“I quickly apologize with my very best English and step away. Any hint of an accent could be an invitation for judgment––that I’m stupid and I don’t belong here.”

This feels so true-to-life. It’s heartening to see a character deal with these mundane, awkward moments. Moments that are very relatable for anyone who’s learned a new language! And because this process is portrayed so well, it’s all the more rewarding to watch Fabiola grow and gain confidence over time, making English her own.

As Fabiola changes, so, too, does her relationship to her new language, her new family, and her new country . This adds an extra element to her character arc that makes the story even richer. It’s a familiar progression for anyone who has slowly begun to call a new place home.

Use style and word choice to craft your story’s emotional atmosphere.

American Street is full of beautiful, re-read-them-just-to-savor-them sentences. But those carefully-chosen words aren’t there for aesthetic purposes alone.

A few examples:

“And maybe it was because this first act of violence at the crossroads of hopes and dreams that death lingered around that house like a baby ghost.”

“But as thirteen-and fifteen-year-old girls, with no mother and father to watch over us, our bodies were like poor countries––there was always a dictator trying to rule over us.”

These are deeply creative, provocative, devastating metaphors. They’re also perfect vehicles for conveying the story’s theme and tone. This haunting language reminds us: we are part of the world. We’re part of a shared history––the history of our families, our homelands. In American Street, the past plays an integral role in the present day; history is inescapable, and the forces that led to violence a hundred years ago continue to propel us toward those same bloody ends. We can’t escape this interconnectedness, nor all the good, bad, sad, and beautiful things it bears.

Here’s another passage:

“I am superstitious about money now. It is like rainwater here. It pours from the skies. But if you try to catch all of it with wide hands and fingers spread part––it will slip through. If you try to catch it with cupped hands, it overflows. Here, I will tilt my head back, let it pour into my mouth, and consume it.

We have to become everything that we want. Consume it. Like our lwas.

Fabiola frequently sees the world through the lens of religion. That religion, and the power that comes with it, play a crucial role in the world of the story and its plot. Zoboi brings us closer to that world by deftly mixing “high” and “low,” crafting prose that is firmly rooted in the everyday––but with a cadence and poetry that evoke a world of spirituality and wonder. Of something beyond. Thus, she reminds us of the magic and power woven into our daily lives.

American Street is a beautiful story. And Fabiola is one of those protagonists who makes it sad to say goodbye. I recommend this novel to any writer looking to learn a bit more about their craft––and anyone who wants to reflect on the identity we create for ourselves, and the places and families we call our own.


Want to chat about American Street and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

 

 

 

 

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Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I promise I’m not just reviewing Shadowshaper because of how pretty the cover is going to look on my homepage.

…Well, okay, that’s a big plus!

But the cover’s not the only gorgeous thing about this book. There is so much for kidlit writers to learn from Daniel José Older’s YA novel Shadowshaper.

[Note: mild spoilers ahead!]

1. Work hard to make your prose look easy.

Shadowshaper features memorable characters, a fascinating setting, and a plot that clips right along. But I’d like to talk about another of the book’s great strengths: its prose. Crisp and clear, rich with voice and vividness, Older’s prose is distinguished by how easy it reads.

Yet anyone who’s tried their hand at writing a story knows: that easiness only comes after a lot of hard work.

In Shadowshaper, a love of words infuses each paragraph, line, and sentence. Here’s just one example:

The gravelly voice spoke her name like a native Spanish speaker would, a light roll of the Rs leading into the clipped A. It didn’t matter. The beast could be Puerto Rican all day long, it was still a horrible, lurking, festering…

There’s rhythm here, with a staccato sentence amidst two longer, more flowing ones. The words have those sounds you can really feel your mouth: gravelly, lurking. Finally, there’s a mix of ultra-specific, just-right vocab––clipped, festering, beast––and voice-y turns of phrase: “be Puerto Rican all day long.” By making careful choices, attentive to rhythm and sound, Older crafts prose that’s both evocative and very fun to read.

2. Give your setting enough life and it can become a character, too.

shadoshaper-cover
SHADOWSHAPER––PUBLISHED BY ARTHUR A. LEVINE BOOKS

Older establishes a magical, textured setting here that has real agency and power within the story. It’s an evocative rendering of Brooklyn that felt real and otherworldly all at once.

Older uses contemporary issues as a jumping-off point for the book’s fantasy elements. Gentrification, racism, structural inequality, institutional violence, and cultural appropriation all play a part in the conflict that emerges between a cruel white academic and Sierra’s family and friends. In the words of The New York Times: it’s “a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.”

There are overpriced coffeeshops and unfinished developments, stares from new white neighbors and a never-flagging threat of police violence. At one point, protagonist Sierra Santiago notes that the white barista at the new café gives her “either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look.”

This mixture of the fantastical and real allows Older to send a subtle political message. While the conflict in Shadowshaper is fictional, this Brooklyn exists in our world, too––and surely there’s a girl like Sierra Santiago out fighting this same fight right now.

3. Remember your protagonist has a body, in addition to a mind.

A while back, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian did a really interesting interview for The Booklist Reader about sex in YA. Mesrobian posed a litmus test for realistic portrayal of a teen’s whole existence, not just their inner thoughts:

[…C]an you picture the characters’ entire bodies? Or are they just giant intellects on top of lollipop-stick bodies?

Older excels at this, making sure Sierra’s body is just as much a part of her character as her mind. There’s the afro Sierra loves, the height she takes pride in––it gives her a “glint of pleasure” to be taller than her older brother. She’s not quite sure what to think when her love interest complements her “belly fat,” though, and turns the conversation instead to his “skinny-ass chest.”

Sierra uses this body, too: she dances and fights. She feels pleasure and pain.

As an author, it can be easy to get caught up in character’s cerebral experiences. Older does write some beautiful descriptions of Sierra’s artistic process, her reflections on her family, and her conflicting emotions about a new friend. But he also remembers that our bodies, our physical experiences, are such an important part of the way we move through the world. Especially when we’re young.

Sierra Santiago feels so real that finishing Shadowshaper is like saying goodbye to an old friend. Fortunately, it isn’t goodbye for long: Shadowhouse Fall, the second book in this trilogy, comes out in September 2017! I can’t wait to revisit Sierra’s world––and see what evil forces she and her friends take on next.

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Want to chat about Shadowshaper or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.