I don’t often read the same author’s books too close together- I’m more of a space-them-out-to-make-an-author’s-works-last kind of gal- but it just so happened that not too long after I read Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, her This Side of Home (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015) came up on my TBR and was in (still working through a bunch of ebooks), so onto my kindle it went. I spent a lovely Saturday on my backyard patio swing, chilling and swinging and enjoying this book, which has given me a lot to think about.
Maya and her twin sister Nikki are identical and have always done everything together, including sharing a best friend and making plans together for the future. But things are changing. Best friend Essence is moving 45 minutes away, thanks to her landlord selling the house she lives in. Their new neighbors are a white family Maya’s not so sure of, but Nikki becomes fast friends with Kate, and Tony…seems okay (and he’s super cute). The neighborhood is gentrifying, and although Maya’s glad it’s safer, the racial tension is hard to deal with and she’s got a lot of justified resentment about the hows and whys of it, and the feelings like all the changes in her neighborhood aren’t meant for its longtime residents.
School is changing too. The new principal seems hellbent on making sure the school isn’t focused on Black history. Inclusion is great, but it doesn’t mean erasure, and Maya’s going to fight like hell to ensure that doesn’t happen. When things get serious between her and Tony, Maya’s not sure how to tell everyone about their new relationship- and not just because Tony’s dad is fluent in microaggression. Senior year is a year of changes, and Maya engages in a lot of self-examination in order to come to terms with who she is and wants to be in this new world.
This is a quick read, but it’s one that makes you think, like really think. About identity, about racial and cultural expectations, about microaggression and racism, about gentrification and the costs and benefits of it, and who it’s really for. It was really interesting to read the perspective of a narrator (especially a teenage narrator) who lived in the neighborhood both before and after gentrification, and to feel her ambivalence about what happened to the place she’s always called home. There’s a lot to be angry and frustrated and resentful about, and Maya is- her best friend was pushed out of her home because of this, and she never feels welcome in most of the white-owned businesses that have taken up residence down the street- but there end up being some good parts to it all as well, as she learns. Does the good outweigh the bad? It’s not an easy question to answer, but hopefully you’ll read deeply enough to come away with an understanding of what our responsibilities are to our fellow human beings and the work it takes to make sure everyone knows we’re truly all in this together.
Maya grows a lot throughout the novel. She comes to understand that things change, and she has to be able to give a little as she fights for what she wants and needs. She’s easy to empathize with: change is hard, especially big changes, especially when they upend the way things have been your whole life. But she has excellent role models in her life- her father, teachers, people in her neighborhood- to give her an idea of what the work looks like to create a true community and to be a responsible adult (being a teenager and learning these lessons is hard; I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything!), and her growth is truly admirable.
I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood, which I love. But it’s still majority white, and I fully admit I don’t know all that much about gentrification, so I’m very glad I read this nuanced take on it, that showed the many sides of it and what it could be like (at one part near the end, a very positive part where the neighborhood comes together after an unfortunate chaotic incident). One of the reasons I read so much is to understand the world, to understand the perspectives of people whose lives aren’t like mine, who have lived in different places and in different ways and who have different takes on issues. Seeing the gentrification of Maya’s neighborhood through her eyes clued me into an angle that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to consider on my own, simply because her life and my life are different. The best books do that, and This Side of Home showed me what a neighborhood looks like when it doesn’t quite work for everyone, and what it takes to make it work for everyone. This has given me a LOT to think about, and Ms. Watson’s book is something I’m going to be carrying with me forever.
This is an excellent, timely novel. Highly recommended.