Taking me back to GH

33004289Solo, by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (2017)

Opening line: “There’s this dream / I’ve been having / about my mother / that scares / the holy night / out of me”

Ever since reading¬†The Crossover,¬†I’m pretty much willing to read anything Kwame Alexander has written. That book was SO deserving of its Newbery Medal. The language that bounded off the page, the basketball lingo to hook the reluctant boy readers, the heart that just exploded all over the page… Sheesh, I can hand that to any student and feel confident about it.

So when I saw Kwame had a YA novel coming out, I was requesting it from the library as soon as I could. And then when I realized half of it takes place in Ghana, I was PUMPED. For those of you who don’t know, I spent four months studying abroad in Ghana my senior year of college, and it’s a small enough place off most people’s vacation travel radar that I don’t get to talk about it very often (although those who know me may say I bring it up whenever an opportunity presents itself). But we’ll get back to Ghana in a minute.

First, let me give you the premise: Blade Morrison is the teenage son of washed up rock’n’roller Rutherford Morrison, who has a hard time staying sober ever since his wife, Blade’s mother, died years ago. Blade has inherited Rutherford’s musical talent and is quite the songwriter/guitarist himself. But when Rutherford crashes Blade’s salutatorian speech at graduation by riding in on a motorcycle and literally crashing into the stage, and a fight with his big sister, Storm, erupts because of it, Blade learns that his musical talent is not genetic. The Morrisons adopted Blade when he was just a baby. The mother he’s loved and lost is not his biological mother.

As it turns out, Blade’s biological mother is doing service work halfway around the world in small villages in Ghana (yesssssss). Feeling lost and alone, Blade decides he needs to find her. Off he sets, and hellllooo favorite half of the book.

Let me just tell you, for those of you who haven’t been to Ghana, Kwame’s details of Blade’s experience of the country are PERFECTION. It felt like I was straight back there with all the smells, tastes, views, and heat rising right off the page. There’s this one poem, “On the way to the village we pass” that I basically wrote in duplicate on my study abroad blog in 2009 (he probably used that as his inspiration, most likely).

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(But seriously. The last sentence of my blog post reads, “Who needs a mall? Just get stuck in traffic for a couple hours and you’re all set.”)

In any case, the second half of the book could have been complete garbage and I wouldn’t have much cared, being thrilled as I was to soak up all the Ghana talk. But of course, it wasn’t garbage. Far from garbage. Just when you think you know where the plot is going, it shifts. Each time you have settled yourself on what to think about a situation or a character, he forces you to reexamine it. And, like always, the heart just pours off the page. That’s how I can best describe his writing: so incredibly full of heart.

Being clearly in the YA camp, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a good fit for my middle school library, but I think I’m going to go ahead and buy it. There’s discussion of drugs/alcohol/sex, but none of that happens on camera so to speak, and none at all with the protagonist, so I think it’s safe. Plus, the good of it blows any hesitance I have out of the water. It will be a great next step to give to 8th graders who I have hooked on a his previous novels in verse.

2.5 stars. Pure Ghana love.

Oh, and in case you were curious about what I looked like with fully braided extensions, here is that. When in Ghana.

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A fresh perspective

30312547Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan (2017)

Opening line: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”

Amina is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, living in Milwaukee, WI, and she’s having a hard time finding her way in middle school. As anyone who has been to middle school knows, things always seem to shift if that first year after elementary, when you are trying to figure out your talents and who your friends are.

Amina’s best friend is Soojin, whose family is from South Korea. The girls have always bonded over their differences from their classmates, the ways substitute teachers struggle with their names and how other students turn up their noses at the contents of their lunchboxes. But Soojin and her family are about to become American citizens, and with that, they plan to change their names, adopting more “American-sounding” ones. Amina is surprised by how much this upsets her, and starts to feel left out when Soojin begins to befriend classmate Emily, a girl who has always hung around with the popular kids and has made fun of Amina and Soojin in the past. Things become even more tense when the one place Amina feels like she really fits, her family’s Islamic Community Center and mosque, is badly vandalized, and Amina questions where she belongs.

I loved this story. What’s so great about it is that it will open the eyes of many students who know nothing about Islam or the immigrant experience in a way that is totally accessible and that they will identify with. The whole time I was reading about the friendship dramas between Amina, Soojin, and Emily, I was brought back to my fifth grade year when I was certain I was going to lose my best friend to the popular girl. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t, and said “popular girl” is now my best friend 18 years later.) Readers will recognize and connect to Amina’s story, while seeing a completely different (and much more accurate) picture of Islam that we see on the news.

A book for every middle grade shelf, 2.5 stars.