The thing about being a teacher is that you can’t look at anything, really, without instantly thinking of ways you could use it in the classroom. I’ve been telling you about the gentrification exhibit at MoCADA, and how I think about gentrification a lot, and now I’ve just finished a middle grade novel that would be an excellent introduction to the issue of housing/human rights. In fact, I’m not so secretly hoping that Gbemi and I can work with MoCADA and their teen partners! I did a writing workshop a couple of weeks ago in Bushwick and one bright female student said, “Adults never listen to us, so it doesn’t matter what we think.” And I immediately told her about the students protesting the MTA’s proposed elimination of student transit passes, AND the courageous way Ari at Reading in Color publicly voiced her outrage over Bloomsbury’s whitewashing of book covers. The kids seemed really impressed, and I wrote Ari’s blog address on the board…you never know what might happen if you plant a seed in a young person’s mind. When I started reading 8th Grade Super Zero, I had a few doubts. I didn’t know the book had a strong religious current running through it, and right from the start I questioned the authenticity of the lead characters; when discussing the upcoming student election, best friends Reggie and Ruthie have this exchange:
“It would be nice if those two didn’t rule the school this year,” I say. “If we were all about looking out for one another instead of hierarchy.”
“Yuck, ‘rule the school,'” says Ruthie. “That’s so…Western, so imperialistic.”
I’ve taught in NYC for years and I don’t know *any* black kids who talk like that. But THAT is precisely why this is such an important book—kids like Ruthie and Reggie DO exist, and their voices desperately need to be heard…there ARE black kids who attend schools for the academically gifted, belong to their church youth group, and have mothers who buy free-range chicken at Whole Foods. This debut novel is full of surprises as Reggie confronts almost daily tests of his moral fiber—why does God let bad things happen, and what are we supposed to do about it? why do kids throw their support behind jerks who act cool instead of kids who want to change the world? why don’t we stand up for those who are weak instead of shying away to protect ourselves? Reggie builds character as he forges relationships with residents of a nearby homeless shelter; he embarks on an oral history project for NPR but soon adopts a “little Buddy,” recruits classmates to transform the shelter’s common room, gives the so-called geeks at school a chance, and realizes self-respect matters more than being popular—or even powerful—at school. In this age of “extreme makeovers” it’s refreshing to see a group of kids who are less interested in name brands and more interested in building an integrated community—if adults want kids to “talk the talk,” they should also support kids’ efforts to “walk the walk” (which is much harder). And in the end, Reggie finds his true love—the girl who watches too much PBS (there’s no such thing as TOO MUCH PBS!). Many characters in the book are racially unmarked, and though race isn’t a dominant issue, the author still inserts reminders of race’s impact on Reggie’s life: he’s hassled by a white cop while waiting for his friend to use the ATM, his father loses his job for taking a stand against racism at his job, and Reggie’s loyalty to his white friend is challenged by Joe C.’s interest in DJ culture and racist Italian father. At this point you’re probably thinking, “Man, I gotta read this book!” Well, if you’re a blogger willing to commit to writing a review, be the first to leave me a comment and it’s yours (this is a signed copy from the author!). Also, stop by The Rejectionist to read a fantastic interview with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.