I have a rule that’s hard and fast. If Nic Stone has a new book, I’m going to read it as soon as I can. Same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo. There aren’t many other authors I’d say this about, but both of these novelists write about important and timely issues in unique and compelling ways. They capture the voices of youths in ways that feel incredibly authentic to me while also resonating with the young people I meet. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to get thrilling new projects from both of them, which is reason enough to call 2019 a great year for books.
First out was Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High. Her YA debut, the verse novel The Poet X, is a tour de force, one of my favorite novels, and the winner of the National Book Award among many other honors. With the Fire on High proves that Acevedo will remain a literary force for a long time. The book follows a young mother named Emoni as she navigates her senior year of high school. Emoni lives with her grandmother and is hyper-focused on providing stability for her young daughter while balancing school, work, family time, and her tenuous co-parenting relationship with her child’s father. Along with her fiercely loyal best friend, she has pushed back against the stigma of getting pregnant as a freshman but has also become extremely guarded about the people she lets into her life. Emoni has set aside her own dreams for her future, believing they were derailed by her unplanned pregnancy and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life as happy as possible, even at the expense of her own.
Emoni is also a talented chef, who can’t help but find solace, community, and joy in the time she spends in the kitchen. All her carefully constructed walls threaten to tumble down when a new Spanish cooking immersion class at school offers her an unexpected opportunity to explore her restaurant dreams, and a new student’s persistent interest in Emoni is coupled with an undeniable connection between them. Emoni must decide how to advocate for herself, reach for the future she deserves, and let people in, even if it means risking personal disappointment and adds stress to her family life.
If I had any concern that Acevedo’s beautiful writing, which I had only previously read as verse, would not translate to prose it was forgotten in the opening pages of With the Fire on High. Emoni is a loveable yet complicated narrator, and Acevedo deftly layers her inner dialog and conversations with the people in her life to give the reader insight into her past and current struggles and stresses, but also her resilient and caring spirit.
Next up was Nic Stone’s latest, Jackpot. Stone’s previous novels both blew me away, but for very different reasons. Dear Martin is a story of race, police violence, and youth activism that is an impeccably written punch to the gut. Her follow-up, Odd One Out, is a queer love story that explores social pressures, identity, and friendship in nuanced and original ways. It made me realize how much I love a good rom-com, which also makes me question the assumptions that I make about people. So, yeah, I was excited for Jackpot.
Jackpot follows Rico, a young woman whose family is going through an extraordinarily difficult time. She lives in a small apartment with her overworked, underpaid mother and her younger brother. Rico is determined to make sure her brother has a more stable childhood than her own and works as many hours as she can manage at a convenience store to try and help make ends meet. It still isn’t enough – her family is constantly on the verge of eviction and live in fear that a small financial hiccup could push them over the edge. When the store she works at sells a winning lottery ticket, Rico becomes convinced that she sold the ticket to a sweet elderly woman on Christmas Eve. As time goes by, and the winning ticket remains unclaimed, Rico becomes increasingly sure that somewhere in town there is a little old lady who has forgotten to check her ticket. And as her family’s situation continues to deteriorate, Rico grows more and more desperate to find the winner, convinced that if she can change the winner’s life, they might reward her for helping.
The only problem with Rico’s plan is that she needs help. And that help is going to have to come in the form of Zan, who seems to be different from Rico is every way. He is light skinned, she is dark skinned. He is filthy rich, she is dirt poor. He is uber-popular, she is invisible. Shockingly, Zan isn’t just game to help, he also seems very interested in Rico. Almost too interested. And while he sometimes behaves in ways that infuriate her, he is also far more intriguing than she could have ever imagined. As they move closer to uncovering the mystery of the lotto winner, Rico must try to figure out how to keep her family afloat, what she wants for herself, and what she wants from Zan.
Stone continues to show an incredibly deft touch for exploring difficult subjects in her stories. Jackpot dives deep into America’s economic divide, the barriers it can create, and how devastating small problems can be for people living in poverty or living with housing insecurity. And yet, she also manages to make Jackpot a flirtatious romp, a light mystery, and a story of resilient young people finding their way through difficult times.
Nic Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo are writers of immense talent telling wonderfully imaginative stories featuring people who represent and reflect the diverse experiences of young people today. I am grateful to be able to give books like theirs to young readers in our community and I can’t wait to see what they do next.