Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Barnes, Derrick. We Could Be Brothers. Scholastic Press, 2010. 164 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-13573-3. This book is for grades 6 to 8, or ages 12 to 14, depending on reading level. This is an excellent high-low selection, rated 4.4 reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I have frequently lamented our lack of good high-low fiction, especially for boys and especially for people of color, but last month’s The Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers and this month’s We Could Be Brothers by Kansas City’s Derrick Barnes have given me hope. However, I had an intriguing problem while reading Mr. Barnes’ engaging short novel: I did not know all of the slang. I was suddenly back in college English class, reading the first page of James Joyce’s Ulysses and trying to figure out what “Chrysostomos” is. When the two main characters in We Could Be Brothers talk about giving each other “dap,” I have no idea what they mean. I assume my students know what they mean, but it bothers and intrigues me that I do not. I could probably infer the meaning of it, but I found myself caught off-guard; Mr. Barnes either has his laptop firmly on the pulse of the youth of America, or he is using last year’s “in” words and comes across as corny. I like the experience of treading on new linguistic ground, and I will ask some of my middle schoolers if “dap” means what I think it means. I applaud Mr. Barnes for giving his characters authentic voices; at least, they sound authentic to me. Although their actions are sometimes too pat and pleasing to the continuity and message of the storyline, at least they do not sound like me trying to sound like I am an urban 13-year-old.

Robeson Battlefield wonders if he will ever see Kansas City’s Alain Locke Middle School again after his bad fortune: Robeson has been assigned to dreaded Post-School Suspension for three days. He must travel down the Bermuda Hallway to a dusty, dingy room in which he must sort papers for the unpleasant and insensitive Mr. Patt. However, it turns out that one of PSS’s mainstays, tough-guy-type Pacino Clapton, may not be as street as he seems. And Rosilyn, who shares her Literature class, is fine, in the most attractive sense of the word. When the three middle schoolers start to know each other, they discover that one thing separating them is language. For example, Robeson refuses to be called the N word and substituting “brotha” seems plastic to Pacino; however, he agrees: “Pacino looked at me like he couldn’t care less. ‘Whatever, brotha. That just ain’t the way I get down. But if you want me to call you brotha, I will. Nobody will believe we’re really brothas anyway’” (59-60). Difficult at first, and coming from “different sides of the tracks” the boys nevertheless begin to form an unlikely friendship, partially because of a mutual enemy, the troubled and dangerous Tariq Molten, bad news even to the street-wise Pacino: “‘Tariq’s mama’s an alcoholic. He’s had about ten stepdaddies, and I hear that almost all of them whupped his butt on the daily . . . Every now and then, his grandma will come get him, I hear. But then he’ll do something stupid again and end up right back in trouble. I think even his granny has given up on him’” (65). Although neither young man will admit his fear, both of them know that tangling with Tariq is not in anyone’s best interest, and both of them know the confrontation will eventually occur. However, Robeson may have a surprise or two up his sleeve, rendering him less helpless than he appears, and Pacino may not be as tough and fearsome as the image he portrays to the world.

Mr. Barnes’ new effort is a solid read, drawing readers into the characters’ very different worlds seamlessly. Character development is a bit slow, but the action is fast-paced and exciting. The themes of empowerment, personal and neighborhood responsibility, and staying true to oneself are modeled well, and refreshingly, with the exception of Tariq’s family and the PSS teacher, the adults act like adults you would want to hang out at the barber shop and kibbitz with. They form an action group to assist in the community and are respected by most folks in town. They are parents to emulate, not fear or abhor. Although I feel that the story wraps up a little too nicely and the once imperfect parts by the end seem a little too new and improved, We Could Be Brothers by Derrick Barnes presents an excellent model for an exemplary way to live and lead: take care of yourself and take care of your brothers, and remember that everyone is your brother.

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