While at first glance Dear Martin by Nic Stone and American Street by Ibi Zoboi couldn’t be more different, themes of family, race, culture, and justice are deeply entwined in both. Debut YA authors Stone and Zoboi did not make the decision an easy one because of the poeticism of their prose and relevancy of their characters’ issues, but even with such high stakes storylines, one managed to edge out the other as victor.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
American Street follows the immigrant and assimilation of Haitian-American Fabiola Toussaint as she is abruptly torn from her mother’s side, who is detained by U.S. Immigration, and thrust into the care of her aunt and three cousins — all of whom she’s never met and knows little about. Now living in a new country in a new city with a family she barely knows, Fab must learn to find her footing amongst this new environment in a city where drugs, family, and freedom come at a price. Zoboi does a wonderful job of infusing rich Haitian culture into the novel and beautifully weaving Creole into the dialogue in order to better understand Fab’s cultural identity, which we may not be as familiar with. She breathes life into each of the characters and the reader gets to know them as if they were real people. Each character is written so honestly that even with all of their faults, one can’t help but root for them because we understand their pain and reasons for doing what they do — we’ve all made mistakes and these characters are no different. The care with which Zoboi handles Fab’s immigrant experience is well done to capture all of the obstacles a person coming to this country for the first time might experience; it’s not easy and Zoboi reminds us of that. Throughout the novel Fab struggles to find a balance between fitting in in the U.S. and not losing touch with her roots, which I think is a very familiar feeling many immigrants deal with on a daily basis. Highlighting those worries help humanize Fab more and make the reader connect to her, all the while being told it’s okay to feel that way. The one downside to American Street is that Fab’s experiences at times seem a little too far-fetched and convenient, which takes the reader out of the story and make them not feel as connected to it. The big crime plot line hindered the story more than helped it and is what caused it to fall short to Dear Martin.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Discussing race relations and racial profiling are two hot topics many authors do not dare tackle, but Nic Stone did just that and did it well. Justyce McAllister is top of his class and Ivy League bound, but not even that can keep him from being handcuffed for something he didn’t do nor can it stop his lifelong peers from looking at him differently. He turns to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help him through, but his faith in Dr. King is tested when him and his best friend are targeted by an angry cop seeking justice for a crime neither had a hand in. The conversations Justyce and his friends and family are forced to have are raw, uncensored, and not easy. They are conversations people all over the world are having or might even be too scared of facing. Justyce knows that by opening the lines of communication to these issues might result in truths he doesn’t want to hear and he has to learn to come to terms with that because it might result in the loss of relationships he’s had his whole life. The fears and struggles Justyce faces of trying to fit in while also very much knowing the color of his skin affects how others view and treat him is something someone reading Dear Martin might be impacted by, whether directly or indirectly. This turmoil Justyce is facing will resonate with readers and hopefully open the lines of dialogue for them as well. Stone’s development and diverse choice of characters not only makes them more real and tangible, but allows for multiple perspectives on the issues at hand and gives the reader a better understanding of why it’s not always as easy as right from wrong. Justyce struggles throughout the book to do what is right, but those choices do not come easy. Stone does offer numerous lighthearted moments peppered throughout the story to keep it from being so bleak. The way Justyce and his friends talk and joke with one another is relatable and honest in a way readers can see themselves in the pages of the book. The romantic relationship Justyce develops does fall flat, which might be the one downside to the book. I understand why it’s there, but it didn’t add much to the story.
And the winner is…
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin is a tough read from beginning to end, but an important one. The end left me feeling hopeful, albeit emotionally wrecked. It’s a book that forces the reader to think and ask themselves questions they may not have thought to before, but need to. Both American Street and Dear Martin are phenomenal reads in their own right, but where American Street falls short is the unbelievable nature of certain plot points — it tiptoes the line between being real and being implausible. Dear Martin, on the other hand, is so incredibly impactful and will stay with the reader long after they’ve read it.
Marion Olea is the Teen Librarian at the Northlake Public Library District. Her hobbies include eating, traveling, crocheting, and submerging herself in all things pop culture.