Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong
By: Joan Steinau Lester
Zondervan (September 2011)
Nina Armstrong’s parents have just divorced and if that weren’t enough everyone around her seems to be changing right before her eyes. Her Dad is suddenly super militant about being Black and her White mother seems so wrapped up in herself she doesn’t have time to be her Mom. She might find some peace with her baby brother Jimi, if he weren’t turning into a tiny version of “New Dad” spouting nonsense about white people even though Jimi’s half-white too.
When Jimi makes a mistake Nina’s not sure she can clean up and her friends start drawing lines in the sand Nina isn’t sure she’ll be able to choose between her white side and her black. Ninth grade couldn’t be tougher, but with the manuscript of her great-great-grandmother’s escape from slavery she just might make it.
This is one of those “issue” books, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Just like applesauce, it’s good and good for you. Lester crafts a well-written story and captures the spirit of 15-year old Nina quite well. She seems age appropriate and the book will work well for 7th to 10th grades. It’s a short read, and those kids who read well will have no problem. If you work at a school it’s a great book club book especially if you’re dealing with an onslaught of bullying and want to generate allies.
Some of the language seems a bit outdated, but the feel of the book is still universal and it has a happy ending even if things don’t resolve like she thinks they should. I like that things are never simple for her. Privilege is never having to think about who you hang out with or whether someone thinks you’re going to steal in a retail store. I think that publishers sometimes think that they can check the diversity box if they have a biracial main character, but they miss out on the complexity of that experience if you never touch on what it is like to become racially aware as a teenager or even sooner.
This book is for:
- Younger teens struggling with what “race” means
- People who like coming of age novels
- Anyone looking for an entry point into a discussion or solution to bullying
- Do you think Nina should have forgiven Jessica for her betrayal?
- Why weren’t Claudette or Jessica searched in the store by the owner? Brainstorm about the choices each of the girls made and what would have happened if Nina accused Claudette or if Jessica stood up for her friend?
- Discuss why Jessica might think that black people are “scary” or “ghetto”. Where do you think she got these stereotypes?
- Young Sarah wonders if there will be white people in heaven. Discuss the messages that Master Armstrong delivers during his Sunday services with the slaves. Why do you think he avoids the sections about Moses?
- Nina’s mom says she’s really not white, what does she mean?
If you like this, try:
Black, White and Jewish by Rebecca Walker is the perfect foil for this fiction tale. The daughter of famed The Color Purple novelist Alice Walker and her Jewish lawyer father, Rebecca split her summers between her bohemian existence with poets and the absence of a curfew with her mother in California and her suburban existence with her Dad and her half-siblings in perfect suburbia on the East Coast. Enjoy!
America is a melting pot and who better to kick off this novel than the legendary biracial rocker, Lenny Kravitz.