A Black teenager rises above tragedy in this coming-of-age novel.
It’s 1995, and life isn’t easy for 14-year-old Leonard Gerard Robinson Jr., known to everyone as Junior. Sports aren’t his thing, which makes it tough to fit in at his school and in his North Philadelphia neighborhood. Junior prefers reading books and writing poetry in his beloved journals, much to the delight of his mother, Sandy, and the chagrin of his father, known as Senior. But Junior finds much-needed solace in words—others’ and his own—especially after a stray bullet ended his younger brother Lawrence’s life the year before. Still mired in grief, Junior’s parents deal with a marriage that’s on the rocks (they were planning to file for divorce on the day Lawrence was shot), and Senior tends to take his anger out on his son. The family moves to a new neighborhood in South Philly for a fresh start, but when Junior is expelled from his high school for standing up to a bully, home life becomes even tenser. Neither of Junior’s parents finished high school, so his graduation is their shared dream. When Junior enters Medgar Evers Secondary, an empathetic school secretary named Casey and a driven teacher called Brother Gay see potential in the angry but intelligent teen and push him to find a life outside of his neighborhood. Jarelle’s novel pulses with vibrant descriptions and a love for hip-hop stars like Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony. Junior’s original poetry begins every chapter, deftly setting the scene for the stories to come, and all the poems are available as a collection at the end of the book. Though at times the prose gets repetitive—Junior’s home haircut and secondhand clothes are mentioned multiple times when once would have sufficed—the protagonist’s journey is compelling and addictively readable, the characters rich and nuanced, and the setting nostalgic for those who remember and illuminating for those who don’t.
This resonant tale about a poetry lover features a unique voice and a hopeful ending.