This is probably closer to a 4.5..
Some books just surprise you in the best of ways. When I added this book to my TBR, I only expected to read a nice YA coming of age contemporary, but wow did I get so much more. I'm emotional and delighted and thoroughly impressed, so let me share my thoughts.
Nevaeh's life is completely turned upside down due to her parent's separation and she is struggling to find her place in this new reality. She wants to fit in with her mother's very religious Baptist family living in Harlem, but she has never the chance or maybe even desire to explore her Black identity before, so she doesn't know how to do it. She tries to channel her confusion, her rage and her feelings into her writing but she is still afraid to show it to anyone. But slowly with the help of her extended family, the friends she makes in the vibrant community and getting to know her mother better through her old journal, she starts expressing herself through spoken word poetry. She is also initially hesitant to understand her Jewish identity but that slowly changes because of the influence of the very interesting Rabbi Sarah. I liked how the author shows us all facets of Nevaeh - she isn't perfect, just a realistic teenager with faults, who doesn't know everything, makes mistakes and can't even understand why she is wrong - but ultimately she owns up her mistakes and tries to correct them, strives to be better.
Every other character in the book also has their own arc. They all influence Nevaeh in her growth, but they have lives and their own issues independent of her. That's why this book is more reading about the daily lives of a family and their friends, rather than just about the main character. Her mother's despair because of the divorce and her deep rooted anxieties are cleverly integrated into the story through the journal, which was also probably one of the hardest parts of the book to read. Jordan is her vivacious cousin who has dreams and ideas for her future, but has to constantly fight for her opportunities because the world doesn't think a young Black woman deserves them. Stevie is Nevaeh's best friend and I just adored his wit and his confidence to go for what he wants. Her aunt Anita comes across as abrasive but they are so many layers to her character and it was beautiful to get to know her. And Rabbi Sarah is one of my favorites - faithful but also open minded, she is charming and delightful but there's also a deep sadness in her. She plays such an important part in the book and I would have loved to get to know her better, but the way her arc is written is kinda perfect for this story. I wasn't sure what to think of Jesus initially but I liked the developing romance. He is also probably one of the most sorted characters in that he knows what he wants from his future and has worked hard for it, despite the world trying to snatch it away from him. Abby is the typical mean girl classmate and Ashleigh is the usual evil stepmother - while I understood the parts they played in Nevaeh's character growth, they both didn't feel as real as all the other characters in the book and that's probably my only issue with this book.
There are so many themes explored in this book, I'm just in awe of the author for being able to talk about all of them in a sensitive manner. The main theme is obviously the issues faced by biracial people, their confusion with finding their place and trying to fit in with both sides of their identity. Both Nevaeh and Stevie have similar kind of issues personally, but they also affect them differently in the outside world because Nevaeh is white passing and he is not. She makes mistakes and is forced to check her privilege many times, sometimes brutally - until she realizes that her privilege allows her to voice her thoughts in a safer manner and sometimes, she has to use this privilege to just listen and give the opportunity to other marginalized voices to speak. There are just so many instances of racism in the book, both micro aggressions and some outright ones - we see how it chips away at the soul of the person who has to encounter them everyday but still wake up and go through it all over again, knowing that their life maybe cut short with even a little misstep. This harsh reality is depicted with raw honesty in the book and it just pained me so much. On another note, the despair of having to go through a divorce after having depended on a person for years is also depicted in a very real manner. The one part which I felt really hard though was, how deep it cuts to lose a childhood best friend and having to go through life without being able to share everything with them. As a single child like Nevaeh, I understood her pain all too well even though my circumstances were different, but I think more books should highlight the deep impact that friendships have on us and how losing them affect us even profoundly than a romantic breakup.
Finally, I just want to say that pick up this book and I promise, you will be affected. It is brilliant, insightful and heartfelt and you just can't help but feel the raw emotions that the characters are feeling. It clearly shows that this is the author's lived experience, a fictionalized version of her own life which makes every word feel very honest. The author's note at the end is even more moving. However, this is a very character driven, slice of life kinda story and there is not much of a plot, but it didn't impact my reading experience at all. It's an amazing debut and I can't wait to see what more the author has for us in the future.