Friday, January 29, 2021

Take Back the Block

Giles, Chrystal D. Take Back the Block
January 26th 2021 by Random House Children’s Book
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Wes is more concerned about starting middle school than he is about the causes for which his parents force him to attend protest marches. He'd rather get together with his friends and play video games, or start planning his outfits. Things are changing around him very quickly: his best friend, Brent, is drifting away, Mya has moved to a posh neighborhood, Takari's family is living in a hotel after losing their home, and he has a small crush on his friend Alyssa. When his Kensington Oaks neighborhood is approached by a developer hoping to turn the prime real estate near the city center into condos and coffee shops. While Wes' parents have a neighborhood meeting about the deal, they are resigned to losing the neighborhood and the home whose ownership was such an accomplishment for earlier generations. Wes, however, becomes very invested in efforts to save the area. His teacher, Mr. Baker, has a friend in the Save Our City organization, Ms. Greene, and she helps Wes and his friends formulate a plan. They plan a nostalgic block party, and think they have convinced their neighbors not to sell. Unfortunately, while Wes and Takari are cleaning up, they are approached by a police man they have never seen in the neighborhood who accuses them of trespassing. He asks them where they live, and when Takari tells the officer he lives in another neighborhood, he is forced into a police car and taken to that precinct. Because his mother is working, Wes' parents come and retrieve him. The parents talk to the boys about the incident, and suggest that there might be a case against the officer should they wish to pursue it. Takari eventually declines, since his mother thinks it will make issues worse. Both boys are shaken, and Takari's family goes to like with his grandmother two hours away. Wes keeps researching Kensington Oaks, and is using it as a topic for a presentation in Mr. Baker's class. When he comes across the fact that the neighborhood was started by a Black owner of a lumber mill, Frederic Pippin, he brings this information to Ms. Greene, who files for designating the area as a historic place. In the meanwhile, neighbors are offered even more money for their properties, and even Brent's family sells up. Will Wes be able to save his neighborhood and survive middle school?
Strengths: Wes is a realistically drawn 6th grader, who chafes at the restrictions his parents impose, struggles to keep up with the evolution of his friends, and wants desperately to keep his world from changing. His friends' lives are also well described, so we can understand why their interactions with Wes are changing. I loved that Wes' parents had high expectations and were really involved in his life; so many middle grade books have parents as unengaged, absent, or dead. The inclusion of a scene where Wes and Takari are accosted by the police was timely and important, especially since this was not the entire focus of the story. Mr. Baker is a great teacher, and the Save Our City organization (represented by Ms. Greene) was an interesting one. I loved that Wes dug deep into print resources to find information about his neighborhood, and it was easy to cheer him on as he tried to save Kensington Oaks. 
Weaknesses: I wasn't entirely convinced that Wes could go so quickly from being a self-involved tween to championing his neighborhood so effectively. I also brought personal family baggage to the fighting of developers; it's not that easy to win. I had ancestors whose farm was cut in two by the Pennsylvania turnpike, family who had their streets cut in two by freeways, and plenty of relatives who were priced out of their own neighborhoods; none of them won their fights. Younger readers will have more hope that they can win this sort of battle, and gentrification has become more of a racial issue in the last fifty years. 
What I really think: This has a very appealing cover and is a solid, quickly moving middle grade novel that touches on many current social issues. Give this to readers who enjoy a good evil developer story like Watson's This Side of Home, Cartaya's The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Krone's Small Mercies. Dilloway's Five Thing About Ava Andrews, Tarpley's  The Harlem Charade or King's Me and Marvin Gardens

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