Maya and Nikki are identical twins about to start their senior years of high school. Their plan has always been to graduate and go to a historically black college together with their best friend. But as they adjust to changes in their neighborhood (gentrification threatens to uproot their friends and neighbors), they also struggle to adjust to changes within each other. As they work to reconcile who they are as young adults, they also deal with who they are as individuals and not just twins.
Renee Watson’s debut YA novel is a breath of fresh air with a singular voice that allows readers to explore complex issues in a way that feels mostly naturalistic. Maya’s narration is very direct and offers readers insight into how families deal (and communities) with change. The characters who populate Watson’s story are layered, authentic, and successful. These are smart teens who still feel like teens, and also noteworthy is the fact that they are surrounded by adults who are not only present but feel just as real.
There’s a lot happening in the book, but Maya’s narrative keeps the story grounded. As the teens deal with diverging interests, gentrification, and interracial relationships, her voice keeps the story centered on her family and the community. The book offers readers no easy answers but does provide a bit of hope about the future without slipping into the saccharine.
Because of the larger issues explored in the book, it would be easy for Watson to allow her story to lose focus. But she manages to keep a hold on her characters while also presenting complex illustrations of what happens to a community when wealth begins to seep in. This is a nuanced look at an important and often overlooked topic. Watson is an author to watch.
This Side of Home by Renee Watson. Bloomsbury Childrens: 2015. Library copy.