For a fantastic story, for a fictional story about real issues, for a way to reinforce lessons on or teach about racism and the Black experience that would work well for younger students in particular (but definitely adults, too)
It’s the summer of 1955. For Ethan Harper, a biracial kid raised mostly by his white father, race has always been a distant conversation. When he’s sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle in small-town Alabama, his Blackness is suddenly front and center, and no one is shy about making it known he’s not welcome there. Except for Juniper Jones. The town’s resident oddball and free spirit, she’s everything the townspeople aren’t―open, kind, and full of acceptance. Armed with two bikes and an unlimited supply of root beer floats, Ethan and Juniper set out to find their place in a town that’s bent on rejecting them. As Ethan is confronted for the first time by what it means to be Black in America, Juniper tries to help him see the beauty in even the ugliest reality, and that even the darkest days can give rise to an invincible summer.
Honestly, I thought it was weird at first that the white girl’s name was on the cover of the black boy’s story. I worried about what message that gave before even beginning the book. I’m still not sure about that, but Juniper brought light and honesty and bravery to Ethan’s life — so maybe it makes sense that she was featured so prominently on his cover. I never quite understood why the other town kids made fun of her and said she was crazy, so either I missed something or it was simply because she wasn’t as racist as the rest of them.
At one point in the novel, a black adult tells Ethan: “colored kids don’t get to be innocent…the way the world treats you.” He reflects on how he had been afforded at least some innocence before coming to Alabama, and how he now recognizes that even where he was in Washington state wasn’t perfect; aggressions were just hidden better. Grappling with his anger and fear, Ethan is very clearly just a teenager dealing with things no one should. The emotions are made so clear in every moment.
There are overtly racist attacks that fold into the sweetest moments of happiness, and vice versa. It gave me whiplash, and made me always feel on edge because even at the best times I was aware that it could be horrifying interrupted by hate and violence. That, I think, well captures the experience of many Black people at that time (and likely still today). That I was reading the story with that emotion made me connect deeply with Ethan and everything he dealt with. It wasn’t easy, but it was effective and important to me.
A lot of moments that reflect points made in other books specifically about the experiences Blacks have in the US. In that regard, this is an excellent novel to reinforce learnings about white supremacy in the US both today and years ago. I’m working on learning more always, and this was another piece for me. And yes, I cried. At moments of beauty and moments of pain.
Thanks to Wattpad Books and NetGalley for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review!