I am so excited to share with you today my review for a new favorite of mine: Christina Hammonds Reed’s fantastic debut, The Black Kids.
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Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots.
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Diversity Rep: cast with many Black characters and some non-Black POC characters, including a Guatemalan major character; bisexual major character
Warnings: racism, police brutality/murder, trauma (including intergenerational), suicide, mentions of lynching, the n-word, child abuse, cancer, alcoholism, romantic cheating, AIDS, teen alcohol and drug use, homophobia, bullying, prison
When I first started reading this book, I explained it to people as “a book about the Rodney King riots.” And it is, sort of—the novel is split into three parts that span the before, during, and after of the riots as they relate to the main character, Ashley.
But really, as I soon discovered, it’s about so much more. The Black Kids is a coming of age story. It’s about relationships and identity and a large, complex cast of characters. As the author explains in this video, it’s a love letter.
The characters in this book are immaculate. The author managed to juggle a rather large group of characters perfectly; every character, even the minor ones like Ashley’s physics teacher, has depth and a backstory. The characters whom I absolutely despised by the end still had their own pain, and they were never portrayed as one-sided.
I really enjoyed Ashley as the protagonist. She was far from perfect in a very realistic way, and I appreciated her character development immensely. Her group of friends, rich white characters who appear often throughout the book, were really interesting as well, as was the exploration of intense friendships, toxic relationships, and growing apart.
I loved the new characters that begin to appear more as the novel progresses as well. LaShawn is a literal angel (and his whole friend group was so sweet), and I loved Lana as well.
There are also some complicated family dynamics that play out (we love to see it!!) between Ashley, her parents, her rebellious older sister, Jo, and her extended family. Complex, human parent characters are sometimes lacking in YA, but that was absolutely not the case in The Black Kids. The picture painted by all of these relationships is one that allows the author to delve into such topics as intergenerational trauma and mental health.
Another important character is Lucia, Ashley’s nanny, and I loved her as well. She’s basically family to Ashley, and I adored the bond that the two characters share.
Through exploring all of these relationships and the ways in which they develop against the backdrop of the 1992 riots, the author touches on a breadth of topics in a way that doesn’t feel forced. The intersectionality of Ashley’s identity, portrayal of Black protest in the media (which I found to be very very relevant right now), and the idea that Black people are expected to go above and beyond to be perfect (“twice as good”), are all explored, as well as issues of class and white feminism.
The novel contextualizes current events (both through its depiction of the Rodney King riots and the less recent history that was woven in about topics such as Black Wall Street and the founding of Los Angeles) in a way that was incredibly interesting and informative for me as a Gen Z kid who wasn’t yet alive at the time when the book takes place. It made me think about how many similarities are apparent in today’s America, and how 1992 really wasn’t that long ago. It was cool to read about characters who were my age 30 years ago, and who aren’t a whole lot different from teenagers now.
A novel so chock-full of various topics and characters would undoubtedly be difficult to pull off, but Christina Hammonds Reed wrote this so well. (It’s especially impressive considering this is her first novel!) The writing is immersive and the figurative language is wonderful. The author weaves memories and almost poetic sequences (as well as the occasional funny moment) really beautifully into the narrative.
On a related note, I was pleasantly surprised at what a large role music plays in the prose. Song lyrics are often braided in, and the ’90s nostalgia of Walkmans and records was entertaining for me, as I’m sure it would be for people in my parents’ age range as well.
Another crucial element to the story is setting. It’s LA, but not the blonde, blue-eyed land of movie stars we often think of—or maybe it is, to some extent, but it’s looked at through a much more complex, critical lens. We as readers get a peek into a more diverse picture of Los Angeles than what is often portrayed, and the novel explores community and what it’s like to be part of a rich Black family in a white neighborhood, attending a predominantly white institution. (Also, like I mentioned before, there’s some Black LA history sprinkled in which was really cool!)
On a different note, I would just like to say (without giving too much way) I was shipping sooo hard by the end. 🙂
Also, as an aside, I would really like to mention the cover, which is STUNNING. Props to Adriana Bellet.
The Black Kids is so complicated and filled to the brim with different intersecting stories, and by the end, I felt hopeful and heartbroken at the same time. I honestly cannot praise this book enough.
The novel has already been optioned for film, and I really hope it happens because I think it would be perfect as a movie. The book has lots of stunning visual elements already (and there’s kind of already a built-in soundtrack, which would be really fun!), and I think the topic and time period would give it widespread appeal across age groups.
Anyway, in case you haven’t gotten the message yet: I really really love this book and highly recommend it.
Christina Hammonds Reed holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Christina is a native of the Los Angeles area, and her work has previously appeared in the Santa Monica Review and One Teen Story. The Black Kids is her first novel.
I would love to point you towards the Hear Our Voices tour for this book, which features a number of own voices reviews!
And here are some more books you may be interested in (the former for if you’re interested in reading more explorations of Black identity, and the latter for the LA content):
Thanks so much for reading! Let me know in the comments if you’ve read The Black Kids or if you have any book recs that are set in the ’90s.
Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for including me on this blog tour and for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!