8th Grade Super-Zero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010, 336 pp, ISBN: 0545096766
"Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
'even if you are not ready for day,
it cannot always be night.'" - Gwendolyn Brooks, from "Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward"
Reggie is a zero. After vomiting in front of the entire student body on the first day of school, more people now know him as "Pukey" than as "Reggie." He has his two best friends, Ruthie and Joe C, but it's tough to be thankful for two when you're teased on a daily basis by pretty much everyone else.
Reggie's youth group, made up of kids from all different schools, is the only place where he gets to just be himself. When the group gets involved at a local homeless shelter, Reggie stops trying to shrink into the background and actually starts stepping up to lead some things. And it feels pretty good.
But stepping up at school, in front of Donovan, Hector, Sparrow and all of the other kids who love making him miserable... it would take a super hero to do that.
This is NOT at all what I was expecting. I vividly remember seeing this title on at least 6 different blog posts over at Reading In Color last year. I had wanted to read it because Ari was such a huge fan, but just kept putting it off. When I decided to take on the personal challenge of reading ONLY books by or about people of color for this month, 8th Grade Super Zero was at the top of my list.
Honestly, even though it had such stellar recommendations, the title had me expecting it to just be kind of kiddish, and maybe not in such a good way. Oh, how wrong I was!
In this incredibly rich novel, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich tackles themes like racism, homelessness, social justice, bullying, and religion. And she does it all with grace, truth, and a sense of humor. Now that's talent.
All throughout the novel, Rhuday-Perkovich illustrates examples of what it could be like to be young and dark skinned in America today. Since he was five-years-old, Reggie's parents have taught him to do quick "police scans" when he sees an officer, just in case he gets hassled later. When he complains that his friend Joe C doesn't have to sign up for community service, his mother responds, "White folks have that luxury." When Joe C gets into DJing and invites Reggie on a hip-hop tour of New York, Reggie wants to go but thinks, "Maybe, but it also sounds like it has a high awkward quotient." And so he responds, "I don't think so. I don't think Black people go on those tours. We know all of that stuff already." The book is filled with similar scenes that made me think about what I take for granted.
Reggie's family is from Jamaica, so his story also includes "tastes" of traditional Jamaican food like his mother's callaloo, festival and fried fish, and codfish and ackee. His father also gives him "Black Voices in Poetry: A Pan-African Panthology," a book that Reggie is initially reluctant to read, but whose words end up making several significant appearances over the course of his story. One of my favorite scenes was when his father quoted the wildly talented, Jamaican-American, Claude McKay:
"If we must die, O let us nobly die/ So that our precious blood may not be shed/ In vain; then even the monsters we defy/ Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!"Religion also played a large role throughout the novel. Reggie got involved with the homeless shelter, which is the catalyst for his personal transformation, because of his youth group. Their leader forces them to grapple with tough questions and is a steady presence in the back of Reggie's mind.
There's so much that I'm not mentioning because this review could easily become an essay: the many faces and voices that Rhuday-Perkovich gives to the homeless, the election for class president, the comic book-super hero tie in, Reggie's feisty best friend Ruthie - who would surely change the world were she not a fictional character... There is just SO MUCH GOODNESS here!
I think I would peg 8th Grade Super Zero more as MG than YA. This book would be AMAZING to use as a class novel, and I am SO disappointed that I didn't read it while we were still in Baltimore, because I would have immediately DonorsChoose'd a class set for my 6th graders! Read, read, read this book. You will be so happy you did.