Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Black, White, Other by Joan Steinau Lester

Black, White, Other by Joan Steinau Lester
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fiction with historical elements
Pages: 208
Publication Date: August 19, 2011
Publisher: Zondervan
Source: I read an e-galley courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Identity Crisis.
As a biracial teen, Nina is accustomed to a life of varied hues—mocha-colored skin, ringed brown hair streaked with red, a darker brother, a black father, a white mother. When her parents decide to divorce, the rainbow of Nina’s existence is reduced to a much starker reality. Shifting definitions and relationships are playing out all around her, and new boxes and lines seem to be getting drawn every day.
Between the fractures within her family and the racial tensions splintering her hometown, Nina feels caught in perpetual battle. Feeling stranded in the nowhere land between racial boundaries, and struggling for personal independence and identity, Nina turns to the story of her great-great-grandmother’s escape from slavery. Is there direction in the tale of her ancestor? Can Nina build her own compass when landmarks from her childhood stop guiding the way?

Even though America has steadily become a more diverse nation over time, Americans still tend to draw very distinct lines between cultures, races, and religions. What happens to those who are caught in the middle, with connections and heritage in more than one culture, race, or religion? Often our society tells them they must choose one or the other, even as we insist on respect for diversity.

As a biracial teen, Nina occupies this middle ground where she doesn't want to be labeled as "black" or "white", but recognized as what she is: black and white. She hadn't really given much thought to it before her parents decided to divorce because it was just the way that they lived as a biracial family. But now she feels like she's been torn in two, expected to take sides with her black father or white mother, and to choose which friends to spend time with: white or black. Her oldest friends seem like they have inexplicably changed into people she doesn't recognize. On top of that, her brother has gotten into big trouble that she must secretly fix, and she feels like she doesn't really have anyone to talk to about her problems and fears.

The one person that she feels really connected to is her great-great-grandmother, Sarah. Nina's father has been researching into Sarah's story and writing a book based on her escape from slavery. Sarah's life, full of problems and fear, gives Nina insight into her own life and hope for the future. Nina also makes some connections with other biracial families, who help her to realize that life doesn't always have to be as black and white as it seems.

This is a valuable story for any teen feeling disconnected and alone, but especially for biracial teens who seem to be so rarely represented in young adult fiction. I appreciated the way that the author weaves history into a contemporary story, and shows how even though slaves had a difficult and depressing reality, they still had the courage to take control of their own lives and the hope to wish for a better future. To Nina, Sarah's story particularly resonates when she realizes that Sarah wasn't just running to escape from her past, but that she was running towards a brighter future.

This is an issues novel, which isn't the most popular type of YA fiction. But it does touch on issues that a lot of teens can relate to: divorce, changing friendships, cliques, troublesome siblings, and the like. It doesn't skirt the issue of race but approaches head-on as an important topic rather than one on the periphery. It acknowledges that race relations are not perfect in today's society, no matter what some elements of society might try to claim now that the United States has elected a biracial man to the Presidency. Ultimately, Black, White, Other was a thought-provoking read that made me more aware of the challenges that biracial teens face.

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: POC Reading Challenge


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