• Review
By – June 11, 2019

After spend­ing her whole life in a wealthy sub­urb out­side New York City with her black moth­er and Jew­ish father, Nevaeh Levitz finds her world begin­ning to fall apart when her par­ents sep­a­rate. Nevaeh and her mom move to Harlem — her mother’s child­hood home and a place they haven’t vis­it­ed in years — due to ten­sion between Nevaeh’s par­ents’ families.

Nevaeh set­tles into a dif­fer­ent life that includes Sun­day ser­vices at the black Bap­tist church where her grand­fa­ther is pas­tor; how­ev­er, she still attends her afflu­ent, pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, pri­vate school in the Bronx — a con­stant source of anx­i­ety. She’s also required to spend time with her father, who grows more dis­tant by the day. Nevaeh is hor­ri­fied when he insists on her hav­ing a bat mitz­vah instead of a sweet six­teen; espe­cial­ly since he only likes to claim his Jew­ish­ness” to get his moth­er and his Bub­by off his back.”

Despite dai­ly tur­moil, Nevaeh finds solace in poet­ry. This pri­vate way to process her emo­tions blos­soms into a source of strength as she shares the writ­ing with her com­mu­ni­ty. She is sup­port­ed whole­heart­ed­ly by her best friend, who, although he is bira­cial with Chi­nese and white par­ents, has nev­er strug­gled with who he is.” Romance plays a role in Nevaeh’s sto­ry through her sweet rela­tion­ship with Jesus DeSan­tos, a Domini­can boy who quick­ly carves a space in her heart, but this strand nev­er over­shad­ows Nevaeh’s quest to find herself.

Harlem is rich­ly drawn, from Domini­can beau­ty salons to beloved bode­gas to issues sur­round­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Nevaeh encoun­ters microag­gres­sions through­out the nov­el, often when she least expects them — such as when she is stopped by a police­man who ques­tions her safe­ty while shop­ping for gro­ceries with her black uncle, and when she wit­ness­es a cab dri­ver refuse to pick up a group of black women.

The cast of char­ac­ters is well devel­oped, par­tic­u­lar­ly Nevaeh’s fam­i­ly in Harlem. Despite their long­time estrange­ment, her grand­fa­ther, aunt, uncle, and cousins pro­vide warm sta­bil­i­ty in the face of her mother’s depres­sion. Nevaeh’s fra­ter­nal twin cousins are instru­men­tal in help­ing her nav­i­gate new­found expe­ri­ences with­in black cul­ture. While Janae is more patient with Nevaeh’s steep learn­ing curve about what it means to be a young black woman, Jor­dan is quick to remind her of the priv­i­lege she holds due to her white-pass­ing genes — sans sugarcoating.

Rab­bi Sarah, who guides Nevaeh’s bat mitz­vah instruc­tion, is also a stand­out. Big­heart­ed and rough around the edges, she helps a reluc­tant Nevaeh con­nect to Judaism and reveals a sur­pris­ing past of her own. Scenes from Nevaeh’s bat mitz­vah lessons con­vey the strong tra­di­tion of the Jew­ish faith while intro­duc­ing her to an unex­plored heritage.

Díaz’s accom­plished debut is filled with warmth and humor, but nev­er hides the ugly truths that can plague fam­i­lies — espe­cial­ly when they haven’t worked to under­stand each other’s dif­fer­ences. For those ques­tion­ing their faith to teens who feel like they don’t quite belong any­where, Nevaeh’s jour­ney toward self-dis­cov­ery is high­ly relat­able. Along the way, Nevaeh learns that iden­ti­ty is as beau­ti­ful as it is com­pli­cat­ed, and read­ers will cheer her on as she grad­u­al­ly becomes empow­ered to stand up for her­self and others.

Brandy Col­bert is an author of books for teens and kids, includ­ing the Stonewall Award – win­ning nov­el Lit­tle & Lion. She is on fac­ul­ty at Ham­line University’s MFA pro­gram in writ­ing for chil­dren, and lives in Los Angeles.

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