When You Look Like Us by Pamela Harris
OMG this was an awesome book! It’s absolutely rare that I ever think, “I wish there were more than five stars!” but this one fits that bill. As someone who reviews constantly, edits frequently, and is also a published author with constant deadlines, it’s also rare that I get caught up at 11 o’clock at night finishing a book, but this one did that too.
What set this book apart for me–as someone who was an English teacher for 24 years and taught in juvenile corrections, so knows her way around diverse voices in YA–was the fact that this was not just another “my terrible life in the ghetto” book. This story accurately portrayed the greater reality, that man students who would be considered at-risk and who may live in less-than-ideal conditions also attend schools with affluent students. Too many people think of “black schools” and “white schools” instead of schools filled with students of every race and color, as well as every income level and need.
Aside from that aspect which first made me fall in love with this book, the author seamlessly weaves a story of a typical teenager who happens to face tremendous obstacles. Yes, his father is absent, but it’s due to cancer (not the stereotype). Yes, his mother is in prison, but it’s due to alcoholism caused by grief that led to a DUI (again, not the stereotype). Yes, the protagonist is a young black male, but as even he points out, his pants don’t sag and he’s being hounded throughout the book to accept the position of co-editor of his high school’s lit mag. No stereotypes there either, just a normal, semi-adjusted student.
His problems arise early when his sister disappears. This is where the stereotypes hit hard, though. Jay turns to the police, who dismiss him outright. A local news channel picks up the story to do a public plea, then turns it into a scandal piece and paints his sister as a drug-using dropout who’s dating a drug dealer. Suffice to say, the “bad guys” in the book turn out to be heroes, the “good guys” are the worst of the worst.
It was great to see a book that was so intricately woven, so well-written, and so engaging that also manages to blow apart the stereotypes. Highly recommend this read!!!