Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

A FABULOUS debut - American Street will have you steeped in the magical realism of the a life at the crossroads of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit, Michigan. 

American Street is the story is of Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian teen immigrating with her mother to reunite with family in Detroit. She is so hopeful for all that will be "American Street" but after her mother is detained by immigration, Fabiola is left to navigate solo. Living with her Aunt Jo and three cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess, she realizes it's really nothing like she thought it would be - and works to make a home in this new, unexpected place. Torn at times between loyalty to her new family and friends and her own mother - she learns American Street is not the golden ticket she once thought. Her new American life is layered in complexities she was in no way prepared for.

What makes this book magic is the voice, heart and soul Zoboi gifts Fabiola. She is a narrator grounded in her identity, and has a depth unlike many YA protagonists. While this novel is an immigrant story, the themes and questions Fabiola struggles with are of course universal. Love, Family, Belonging, Sense of Home, Racism, Sexism, Abuse, Trust, Right, Wrong, Justice, and the gray matter in between it all. 

The depth of Fabiola is informed by Zoboi's personal experiences, as she reflects in her author's note: "While working on American Street, I pulled from my own memories of living in between cultures, the experiences I had in high school, and the many tragic stories about violence and trauma that girls have endured. In Haiti, many girls dream of the freedom to live without the constraints of oppression. Yet more often than not, these girls and their families leave their home countries only to move to other broken and disenfranchised communities." 

Zoboi also notes inspiration for the novel from Rachel Jeantel, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant who was brought into the spotlight after the killing of Trayvon Martin, as he was on the phone with her at the time. Zoboi reflects on watching Jeantel testify during George Zimmerman's trial: 
"...I recognized a little bit of myself in Rachel, and in the many Haitian teen girls I've worked with over the years. We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood... This tension between our inherited identity and our newly adopted selves filters into our relationships... and into how we interact with the broken places around us. I saw Fabiola in these girls, and that's how this story was truly born." 

The question that emanates through this novel seems to be the one Zoboi's mother also asked years ago, as she recalls a time on the L train where they saw someone steal a diamond ring off of a woman's finger, "We'd made it to the other side, just like Fabiola, but what was this life?

This book is a beautiful addition to any classroom. Age-wise, I'd say High School readers would be best. There is a sweet (at a few times steamy) love interest between Fabiola and a boy...  I'll leave that for you to discover when you read! Primarily I'd say HS readers because of some of the more abusive relationships in the book, as well as some drugs and violence. Ibi Zoboi actually wrote more about the complexity of the 'bad boy' love that makes its way into American Street - definitely worth the read!

In Summary: read it, read it, read it! And get it into your students' hands! And Ibi Zoboi, I cannot wait to read more of your work! 

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