Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rough, but Important Sell-Out Could Use A Little Fine-Tuning

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Standing out is nothing new for high school freshman NaTasha Jennings. One of the few African-Americans in her suburban New Jersey town, she's used to looking different, being different from the kids around her. She's not exactly happy with her curvy hips, coarse hair, and dark chocolate-colored skin or the fact that the guys at her school never seem to see her, let alone ask her out, but she can deal. Just because she's surrounded by people who look nothing like her doesn't mean her cushy prepster lifestyle isn't worth it.

NaTasha's sassy Harlem-reared grandmother does not agree. Tilly, who turns up her nose at any town with "too many white folks and not enough jerk chicken" (4), takes it upon herself to drag her granddaughter back to her roots. NaTasha's spent plenty of vacay time in Harlem, always enjoying having Tilly to herself, but never a whole summer. And she's never set foot inside the crisis center where Tilly has volunteered for years. All that's about to change. While NaTasha's friends roam the mall and hit all the good parties, she'll be stuck in her grandma's colorful neighborhood hanging out with juvenile delinquents If this is what it takes to "find herself," NaTasha wants no part of it. Except, of course, that nobody argues with Tilly. And, okay, if NaTasha's honest with herself, she can admit that her grandmother might be right - maybe she could use a lesson in Racial Identity 101.

It doesn't take NaTasha long to realize the lesson's not going to be an easy one. Tilly's gritty community makes her jumpy, the girls at Amber's Place dub her a "sell-out" for acting too white, and already, her friends back home are changing. Even though she's finally getting some male attention from not one, but two fine-looking boys, NaTasha still wants to high-tail it back to her nice, safe, suburban routine. As much as she longs to go home, she refuses to quit, knowing giving up will only confirm her sell-out status. But staying in Harlem - battling her fears and facing truths about herself she's never dared to acknowledge before - will be the hardest thing she's ever done.

While Sell-Out, a debut novel by Ebony Joy Wilkins, specifically addresses racial identity, it's the kind of book that will speak to anyone who's ever felt out of place. The story makes powerful statements about race, identity, culture, accepting differences, and staying true to oneself. It delves into issues I, as a white surburbanite, have never heard of (skin bleaching cream?), let alone experienced. It's precisely because these things have no place in my day-to-day existence that I found this book both compelling and important. These kinds of empathy-through-understanding lessons are always valuable.

That being said, I felt that Wilkins' writing needed some serious polishing. Much of Sell-Out's plot seemed contrived, some of it felt forced, and, not all of it made sense to me (I'm still trying to figure out why Rex showed up in the end.). Although there's plenty of conflict in the book, I still thought NaTasha resolved her problems a little too easily and way too neatly. I wanted her to struggle more, fight harder, and battle longer before winning her victory. Perhaps because of these things, I never really felt as if I knew NaTasha. Or any of her cohorts. All of them - except Tilly, who's so colorful she's like five-dimensional - needed fleshing out.

All in all, I still think Sell-Out tells an important story. I just wish it was smoother, tighter, and stronger. Ebony Joy Wilkins shows so much potential that you better believe I'll be keeping my eye on her. Here's hoping she keeps writing, keeps polishing, and keeps publishing this type of book. Oh, and if feisty Tilly makes another appearance, you won't hear me complaining.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of other books about racial identity, like Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger; When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright; several Jacqueline Woodson titles and others)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), some sexual content, and mature themes

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC* of Sell-Out from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

*Quotes taken from an ARC, and are therefore subject to change in the final version of the book

1 comment:

  1. Very well thought out review! This sounds interesting, but I'm not sure if I'd be able to put up with characters that I didn't feel connected to.

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