Author Allison Whittenberg pitches two African American teens from very different backgrounds into a series of life-changing episodes beginning when Hakiam reluctantly forces himself to sign up for a tutor so he can earn his GED. His past is unsavory; turned out by his mother, he bounces among relatives and indulges in petty crimes until he winds up in Philadelphia with a cousin whose newborn infant he promises to babysit in exchange for room and board. Realizing he is on the fast track to nowhere, he finally admits he needs assistance in order to make a fresh start. Wendy, the tutor on call when he comes into the office, is the lifeline he desperately needs but is hesitant to accept.
In fits and starts the two work on his class assignments, when they aren't arguing and misunderstanding the very different cultures they come from. It's difficult to say who bends first, but a casual date at a coffee shop changes the dynamics of their relationship. Wendy is introduced to Hakiam's world, in which all his belongings fit in a garbage bag, the roof over his head depends entirely on an unstable cousin who hasn't a clue how to care for her premature infant, and in which he must fight the urge to return to his purse-snatching days.
Hakiam in turn is introduced to Wendy's father, who fought hard to raise himself up and leave the ghetto, never to return or to have any sympathy for those who couldn't claw their way out as he did. He has raised his daughter in a white suburb and lectures her nearly daily on the importance of attending a nice, white university and not one of “those” colleges built on the heritage of African Americans.
The plot works well. Readers will sympathize with Hakiam's efforts to leave his past behind and make a better life for himself. His cousin Leesa and her precarious method of child care contrasts starkly with Hakiam's concern for the infant. The wary dance between Hakiam and Wendy, distrusting each other initially, then breaking down the cultural barrier between them, entering into each other's world, and coming out with a broader understanding, sends a tender yet powerful message.
What didn't work for this reviewer was the character development of Wendy and her father. The reader may initially get the impression that Wendy is 30 years old from her behavior and speech. It was startling to discover she is only 16, given her apparent grasp of complex social issues and million dollar vocabulary. Her father's relentless stereotyping of blacks becomes tiresome and seems baseless. Their arguments, which occur whenever they are in the house together, are circular, predictable, and pointless.
This 180-page novel is otherwise nicely crafted and offers a seldom-seen perspective of prejudice within and upon the African American culture.
Reviewed by Jane Behrens, Librarian