August 24, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I taught junior high/high school in a group home, just out of college. I was a coteacher who worked in a classroom with another teacher and an aide, mostly 1:1, since my students were at wildly varying educational levels, due to housing instability and truancy. Finding books which were at the appropriate reading levels yet which held my kids' interest was a constant challenge. I read a lot of simplistic, misguided books which celebrated the dubious charms of ghetto life, and a lot of middle grade books which depicted worlds too sanitized and young to engage my older boys. I had some success with traditional books, of course, but these kids were a constant challenge. I really could have used a series like the Blacktop.

(And no, nobody is paying me to say this.)

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Justin is a lot of things, but desperate to be seen as a baller is the least helpful of them. He just wants to be somebody in his Oakland neighborhood, somebody who's worth a nickname, who stands, hipshot, and spits, his sleeves rolled up to show his tats. Justin wants to be one of the ones who is cool enough to just jerk his chin up at girls and make them cross the blacktop to talk to him. Unfortunately, Justin's an uncoordinated stringbean, and his bball skills come and go intermittently like a dying light bulb. The one time he threw something well, it backfired badly in ways which leave him questioning his life's goals. Justin regrets everything -- except his desire to play. Somehow he's taking on the crew from Ghosttown - and the uncoordinated non-baller has to create a basketball team.

It's not enough that his Mom and stepdad just strained their slender resources to buy him a pair of the nicest kicks he's ever had. Now his Dad, who taught him to play basketball when he was five, keeps showing up in a cloud of eye-stinging stink and alcohol fumes, trying to dispense some manly Black wisdom. Nobody needs that noise, and Justin's trying to make something different of himself, if people would just give him a chance to show his stuff. What's it take to let a man catch a break?

Observations: Though this is written at a fourth grade level, readers never once get the feeling that this is the case. Unlike so many other books purportedly Hi/Lo, this first of the Blacktop books doesn't talk down to the reader. Though he cleans up his language at home, on the street, Justin throws down occasional profanity. Additionally, he and his friend, Frank, are occasionally stupid, do pointless things, and think a lot about girls. Both boys have so little game that they're amusing, but as the reader smirks, they'll have bolted through the very short narrative, and be ready for the next one, which was released concurrently.

The story isn't over when the book ends. Though there's not a sense of "cliffhanger" this is clearly a kickoff point for a series, so readers will be grateful to read the next book, which is from Janae's point of view, and the book following, which is told through the eyes of Justin's best friend, Frank. People looking for a "lesson" in these books, and for a strong moral to be preached to readers need to look elsewhere. This is simply a slice-of-life look at a kid with basically good intentions who had a silly hustle going one hot Oakland summer.

Conclusion: A realistic, conflicted voice from a boy who is a normal mix of good and ridiculous, this is a story which would have been appreciated by my students. Those who struggle with comprehension are provided a clear, important-feeling narrative arc to follow, as well as a sense of accomplishment about finishing a whole book in a short amount of time. These would be a positive addition to a school library.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishers, Grosset & Dunlap. You can find BLACKTOP: JUSTIN by LJ Alonge at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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