Written with a light touch, a believably diverse cast of characters, and several deftly handled, important messages, Why We Fly provides a glimpse into the energetic, sometimes dangerous, and always exciting world of high school cheerleading. Jealousy, intense competition, social pressures, changing friendships, and family concerns are woven into the lives of the three appealing and nuanced protagonists: Leni, who is recovering from two concussions that were the result of her cheerleading stunt work; Chanel, who sets high goals but needs to learn how to manage stress in a healthy way; and Samuel, nicknamed Three, who is a rising football star with parents who are determined to see him eventually make it to no less than the NFL, with no distractions allowed.
The lives of these three high school seniors are set against a backdrop of social and political upheaval; a prominent NFL star, who is an alumnus of their school, has made national news by staging a dramatic protest on behalf of fairness and justice — he has “taken a knee” during the singing of the national anthem at a nationally televised game, and everyone is talking about it.
Leni, white and deeply Jewishly identified, is now the captain of the cheer squad and is moved to have her teammates support this alum by having the cheer squad kneel during the anthem at their next game. Chanel and Three, both black, are supportive up to a point but have serious reservations about this course of action. They understand the real-world consequences that may ensue. When the team kneels and Chanel tweets the news out into the digital universe, forces larger than the friends ever anticipated begin to crash down upon them. he school administration is livid, their coach is powerless to help, their parents are worried about their futures, internet racism and antisemitism snowball, and their unity as a team begins to crack. College acceptances are looming as well; decisions made now will most certainly affect their futures.
There are some supportive adults who are sources of assistance and strength; Three’s aunt, a professor of African-American studies at a nearby university, and Leni’s rabbi, a close family friend who had prepared her for her bat mitzvah, are reliable sources of advice. Both these adults are glad to provide some perspective. The professor and the rabbi inspire Leni to volunteer for social action causes. Her budding romance with Three, the decisions regarding her future, and her changing reliance on one close friend begin to meld into a new set of values as she begins to mature. Chanel begins to realize that the former goals she clung to with tenacity may not be the only ones that can provide a productive path to her future.Three begins to understand that his parents’ goals may become his own and may be worth striving for as he becomes his own, more confident man.
The writing team of Jones and Segal brings an interesting dual perspective to the story. The voices of the characters feel authentic and true. The book is a worthy addition to the young adult bookshelf leaving the reader much to think about and, perhaps, discuss with family and friends.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.