Weekend Picks May 27, 2022
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Mine is Contemporary Realism.
Give me a young adult book that deals with real issues in real time – and I am in heaven.
And I want to remind you of one – one that is recent and contemporary in content and tone – which caught the eyes and ears of teen and adult readers everywhere – when racial strife and national protests – became prominent in American life – with the mishandling and murdering of George Floyd in 2020.
The book is Why We Fly – by the authors of the best-selling YA novel – I’m Not Dying with You Tonight – by popular YA authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. Together, they create believable heroines (something in short supply) – who do not fit the model of ever smiling, happy-go-lucky cheerleaders. Instead, the two – Leni and Nelly – become – unwittingly and unexpectedly – local and national teen social justice activists – as they lead a group of high school athletes and students in a protest for social justice and equality.
Who knew that two cheerleaders could cause so much trouble?
Working from the premise Colin Kaepernick’s infamous stance heard around the world – the pro-football player who in 2016 took a knee during the playing of the national anthem at the start of a NFL game in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States – our authors, Jones and Segal, present the story of how our cheerleaders, Lenni (who is white) and Nelly (who is Black), form a bond and together, lead the cheerleading squad to take a knee to draw attention to the unequal, hateful, and violent treatment of people of color in America.
One Cody Knight, Franklin High's previous all-star QB who went on to the big leagues — now in the news for taking a knee at games. Along the lines of Colin Kaepernick's activism, Cody's goal is to draw attention to the unequal treatment of Black people in America. But as happened with Kaepernick, many label Cody's actions a stunt that politicizes and pulls focus from the game of football – and just having a good time.
Inspired by Cody’s political stance, and at the suggestion of others, Leni and Nelly, our cheerleaders, lead the squad to take a knee during the national anthem at the first game of the season. Suddenly, an overwhelming positive response results, which morphs into student groups across the school rallying to her cause – and quite unexpectedly, some of the football players kneeling with them at the next game.
But their euphoria – at having started a social movement – soon turns sour. In retaliation for their ‘insubordination’ – the cheerleading squad is banned from the field before the next game – and only Nelly, our Black cheerleader, is punished. Nelly is suspended from school for over a week. And then, lo and behold – everything backfires. Hate speech – against the cheerleaders and the social protest – and Nelly, in particular – explodes on social media.
And Lenni feels responsible.
This was Lenni’s idea to demonstrate solidarity with her African American friend – and now her friend’s life is in jeopardy. Will colleges look upon her unfavorably because she is seen as a troublemaker? A rabble rouser? Or will they honor her because she is willing to speak to truth to power? And when the dust settles – who will be their true friends? And more importantly, will they, Lenni and Nelly, still have each other…?
What do you do when a moment of youthful protest turns into a viral sensation? Are you an ally or an accomplice? As a young person, how loudly are you willing to speak for your beliefs knowing your future might be in jeopardy? Is that even a future you want? And when the dust settles, will the same friends you've always counted on still be standing by your side?
What is most appealing about this terrific YA novel is this riveting tale of social protest and youthful optimism is told in alternating chapters. Much like they did in their blockbuster I'm Not Dying with You Tonight, the two authors present the stories of the main characters in Why We Fly along the same timeline, but from different points of view. We experience their doubts, grievances, hopes and dreams – each in their own voice.
And for teachers and young people alike – the chance to grapple with a real social issue in real time with the real voices of teens they know – or hope to know – is the greatest social gift we can give our young people. For real change only occurs when we find our true voices – and ‘learn to fly….”
Jeffrey S. Kaplan, PhD
Associate Professor Emeritus
School of Teacher Education
College of Community Innovation & Education
University of Central Florida
Orlando, Florida 32826