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This Side of Home

What attracted me to This Side of Home by Renee Watson was the cover. The story hooked my interest. The characters made me fall in love.

Maya has lived her entire life in the same neighborhood in Portland hanging out with the same group of friends: her twin sister Nikki, their best friend Essence, and Ronnie, Malachi, and Devin-three boys her father mentors. They have plans for the future that involve each other: prom, college, life. But things in their neighborhood are changing. People are moving in and starting new businesses. Property values are going up as a result. In addition to change, this is also causing trouble. Essence has to move out of her  house when the owner decides he can make more money selling it than renting it. The racial demographics of the school, which has been mostly African American, is shifting. This presents new challenges and choices for Maya and her friends. It brings new people into their lives at the same time. Maya has to figure out how-and if-she wants to adjust her world to fit these new opportunities and relationships as the friendships she's held close for so many years are also starting to change.

Maya's voice is so perfect. Yes, that's the word I'm going to use. Perfect. Her narrative skips a lot. There are some giant leaps in time, and yet the story has a natural flow and rhythm. (It is divided seasonally so this makes sense, but Watson executes it particularly well.) Maya is faced with so many challenges and things she doesn't like during her senior year. The new principal is one of those educators who, I think, means well but just has his head up his arse. (I've worked with many such people.) There are new people on the student council who are trying to change the culture of the school. There are the new businesses and so many white faces they've brought with them. Her sister is hanging out with the new girl who moved into their old best friend's house. And then there's the good looking boy who also lives in that house. Tony is not who a girl like Maya ought to be with-so she thinks. But he makes her heart flutter when her boyfriend Devin doesn't. Maya's struggle is one that most seniors have. Things are changing-too many things too fast sometimes. In many ways her figuring out how to reconcile conflicting desires and objectives in her life is a common one. What is uncommon is that its set against a backdrop of gentrification and racial tension that many readers may not ever experience or even realize happens. I loved experiencing her journey from the beginning of the story to the end. She makes adjustments to fit the changing world into her worldview, but she changes things around her too. It's a wonderful story. It's full of hope without being cheesy. I also liked how the supporting characters are all given nuance. There is no relying on stereotypes. There are a lot of characters in the book, but it's easy to tell them all apart. And I just love so many of them besides Maya. (Tony, Nikki, Charles, Essence, Mrs. Armstrong, Star) Even Cynthie, who is set up as Maya's rival of sorts, has more to her. The reader can see it there even if Maya can't.

The fantastic characters in This Side of Home give the world a story that is full of tension and hard truths about urban living, gentrification, and the resources allotted to public schools. It's a look at how  a variety of people live and how a variety of people think-all filtered through the lens of one 17 year old girl. That filter helps to bring the injustices and gray areas of it all a sharper relief. Maya isn't right about everything from the start, but the way she sees the world helps to bring many important issues into the light. This is a great book to spark thoughts on what defines a person. Is it race? Is it culture? Is it where you're from? Who you date? Where you go to school? Your address? How do we take all those things others use to judge us and make it a part of our own identity? Or not. I enjoyed the way Watson presented these questions through the story, how they were debated, and how many characters arrive at differing conclusions.

This Side of Home is a book that will be added to my shelves and recommend to any who will listen to me talk about.

I read an e-galley made available by the publisher, Bloomsbury Children's USA, via NetGalley. This Side of Home goes on sale February 3rd.

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