Published by Bloomsbury on February 3rd, 2015
Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.
In her inspired YA debut, Renée Watson explores the experience of young African-American women navigating the traditions and expectations of their culture.
Wow wow wow. Why aren’t there more people talking about This Side of Home? Not only was the writing beautiful but this story is amazing and important for every kind of reader out there. In your next attempt to support diversity in YA, make sure you take a look at this contemporary! It is so, so good.
This Side of Home follows Maya, a black girl from Portland who is dealing with her neighborhood’s gentrification, fighting for her school’s Black History Month’s celebrations, the ebb and flow of her relationships with her twin sister Nikki, and their best friend Essence, and her perception of herself as she grows feelings for Tony, the white boy who moved into Essence’s house after she and her mother were kicked out – just one of the families displaced because of that gentrification I mentioned earlier. What I loved the most about this novel – and reading any novel about marginalized people written by someone who lives that same experience – is that, instead of taking a single black character and tokenizing them or taking even a black main character and whitewashing their existence, Renee Watson has put black people, their history, their lives, their culture, in the front and center of this book. She has taken Maya’s pride and shame and fear about her heritage and her race and made these feelings so realistic and palpable for the reader. Maya’s internal struggles as well as her external activism drove each page and really brought home a slice of what it’s like to be black in America.
And all the while, Maya was allowed to be a whole person. Too often, black characters, especially black girls and women, are pushed to fulfill the Strong Black Woman archetype. This leaves absolutely no room for flaws, for personality, for personal growth and for weakness. Maya, while a fighter for her community and their rights and culture and the recognition they all deserve, is still a whole person unto herself outside of that activism. She is more than just those actions as student body president. She is a teenage girl, a senior on the brink of going away for college, a best friend to a girl who very often needs a best friend to rely on. Maya is a girl falling in love. She is a sister and a friend and a neighbor and a member of Portland’s community. She gets to be all these things and it is such a welcome breath of fresh air to see a young woman of color get to do, feel, be all of it.
The writing was breathtaking, too. Especially the pages dedicated to the introduction of each season. It was poetry on the page. And I loved the storytelling style. Each chapter was almost a small story on its own, strung together with other chapters to complete an overarching plot. As the book progressed, though, the chapters started to feel less like vignettes and more like ordinary chapters, which for me, was slightly disappointing, but didn’t really change the reading experience. The shortness of the chapters also lead to quick, fast-paced reading. This wasn’t a very action-packed novel – it is actually quite a quiet story – but I flew through the pages anyway.
My real complaint – and there is only one – that I felt like there was a wall between the reader and Maya. Though it was told in first person, the writing was simplistic sometimes. I almost felt that Maya was a bit innocent and unsure of herself in some areas (though not many?) that lead to some inconsistencies, and thus, I felt a bit disconnected to her. But the story was so important and so beautifully told, that I quickly forgave this small issue.
This Side of Home is a book that needs to be talked about more. With this surge of support for diverse books with diverse characters, I feel like this title gets overlooked too often. If you love contemporary, activism, stories about family, you should definitely pick this one up. You will not be disappointed.