In Candice Iloh’s debut novel in verse, Every Body Looking, college and the newfound independence it brings launch 18-year-old Ada from her conservative upbringing into a discovery of what she wants.
When we first meet Ada, she doesn’t seem to know how to articulate her own desires, either for her relationships or for the direction her life will take. A first-generation Nigerian American girl, Ada has been sheltered as much as her religious father could manage. After working hard in high school, she earns a scholarship to a historically Black college and leaves Chicago on her own for the first time. Though she registers for accounting classes, it doesn’t take long for Ada to realize that she doesn’t care about credits and debits. What she really wants to do is dance—something she’s always done but has kept hidden from her dad. When Ada meets an entrancing dancer named Kendra, she begins to see a way to build her future around her love of dance.
Every Body Looking pivots and spins across time, from Ada’s early childhood all the way to her first year of college, as it touches on themes of abuse, trauma and healing. Ada experiences abuse at a young age, and it impacts her life in ways that Iloh depicts with sensitivity. Ada also struggles with loving and being loved by her unreliable and sometimes cruel mother, who is dealing with addiction.
Iloh movingly explores the concept of safety through Ada’s relationships with her parents, as well as in her evolving perspectives on money, potential careers and budding romantic crushes. Teen readers who long for more independence than adults are willing to grant them, or who long to be seen as individuals rather than vessels for adult influence and direction, will find many points of identification with Ada’s story.
As Ada learns to feel and appreciate the power of her own body through dance, she develops strength in other areas of her life as well. Every Body Looking is a powerful acknowledgement of what we gain when we grant ourselves permission to embrace who we are fully and completely.