Goodreads: The Black Kids
This coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year. Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel that explores one girl’s coming of age in a time of turmoil. Ashley Bennett is a senior in high school enjoying many of the perks that come with wealth, while largely ignoring the problems of the outside world. After the death of Rodney King, however, the kids at school, as well as some of Ashley’s family members, begin speaking up about the injustices they see happening around them. Ashley would not mind continuing living in blissful ignorance, but it becomes increasingly difficult as people she knows are swept up into the protests and the riots. The Black Kids is a sensitive and an empathetic look at finding and claiming one’s identity in an increasingly uncertain world.
The Black Kids brings a fresh perspective to YA literature as it draws attention to issues of the present by focusing on events in the past. Set in the 1990s, the book is technically historical fiction, but, sadly, it feels like a story that could have just as easily been set in 2021. With one simple narrative choice, Christina Hammonds Reed makes a powerful statement about American society, encouraging readers to reflect on what exactly has changed–and what has not.
This thought-provoking start proves just one savvy choice among many as the book progresses. In Ashley, Reed gives readers a compelling protagonist who initially seems privileged due to her wealth, her school, her neighborhood, and her friends. Ashley herself sees no need to think too far beyond the fun she’s planning to have in her senior year of high school, and readers soon learn that she is the type of girl who does not mind trespassing in someone else’s pool or even stealing someone else’s boyfriend if it means she will have a good time. However, though Ashley could easily have been written as a disagreeable protagonist, she mostly feels realistic and she manages to capture readers’ empathy despite her poor choices. In some way, this may be because Ashley can work as a stand-in for readers: initially blissfully ignorant, not too concerned with current events, assuming the problems around her are someone else’s–but ultimately realizing injustice affects her, too. In other words, Ashley is not necessarily a bad person, but she is someone who could be more thoughtful–just like so many of us.
Ashley’s character is incredibly rich, giving the story a wonderful depth and nuance as she tries to navigate her identity even as the people and the events around her threaten to change her understanding of it. She begins as content to hang out with the rich white girls in her school, but ends up realizing that she is also connected in important ways to other people: her sister, a college dropout trying to change the world; her uncle and her cousin, still trying to save and live off a vacuum repair business in an age when repairs are obsolete; the cute boy at school, who needs a scholarship. Initially, Ashley does not really relate to people who are always getting upset about current events or who aren’t as wealthy as she is. She ends by understanding that her identity can be so much bigger than she realized, and that she’s part of a larger community.
The Black Kids would be a standout novel just from the rich story and characterization, but Reed also gives readers a genuinely amazing reading experience through her evocative prose. The narration has a sort of artsy feeling to it, but not the kind that can confuse readers or make them feel like they don’t understand what is happening. Rather, the narration reflects a bit of Ashley’s thought processes, as she seeks to make sense of the world around her, and its relation to her past, as well as her present and her future.
The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel with a powerful story focused on friendship, family, and identity, along with a vibrant protagonist. It is a standout novel, and one certain to stay with its readers.