African-American twins Maya and Nikki and their neighbor Essence have always had their lives completely planned. They’ll date the right boys, attend historically black all-female Spelman College and be best friends forever.
But as their senior year starts, their surety gets shaky. Nikki appreciates the freshness and variety that gentrification has brought to their neighborhood, but Maya resents the lack of local black-owned businesses. Essence and her perpetually drunk mother move across town, and a wealthy white family—including a cute boy and his racially ignorant sister—move in. As student council president, Maya finds herself constantly at odds with the new Richmond High principal, an outsider whose vision for the school doesn’t match that of many students. As the year progresses, the three friends find that relationships can evolve, goals can shift and the past can help inform the present as well as the future.
There’s never been a better time for author Renée Watson’s YA debut. Narrator Maya is perceptive, whether participating in an ongoing hallway-postering campaign or explaining why a celebration of “tolerance” shouldn’t replace Black History Month. A single racial slur appears in a particularly tense moment, but otherwise this is a gentle yet powerful reflection on choices, changes and contemporary African-American teenage identity.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Watson about This Side of Home.
Jill Ratzan teaches research rudiments in central New Jersey. She learned most of what she knows about YA lit from her terrific grad students.