Genesis, a black girl, struggles with self-image, much of which is fostered by her own family.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams. Caitlyn Dlough Books (Atheneum, 2019, 364 pages
Reading level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 12-15
No one can accuse Genesis Anderson of thinking too much of herself. Why should she? Here she finally works her way up the status ladder of her new school—enough to ask some girls over to her house to hang out—and when they walk over together, what do they see but all her family’s furniture on the lawn. Evicted again. The girls react as 13-year-olds will, but even their snarky remarks aren’t as painful as the list Genesis got from her last “new school”: 100 REASONS WHY WE HATE GENESIS. And yes, it’s a stupid list because there are only sixty reasons and most of them are dumb. But she still has the list, because there are other reasons. Like, her dad can’t keep a job because of his drinking. And every time she and Mama go to stay with Grandma, the old lady can’t keep from dissing her dad and his whole family. And she’s black—not a race, but an actual color. Instead of taking after her light-skinned Mama, Genesis resembles her very dark Dad, a shade that doesn’t measure up to the paper-bag test of lightness favored by her mother’s family. Dad even admits, in a moment of weakness, that things would have been easier if Genesis were lighter. Maybe that’s why he drinks so much. Maybe, if there was some way to lighten her skin and tame her wild hair, she could fix this family.
When things are going wrong, it’s common for kids to blame themselves. Given the problems Genesis has to live with, one would expect a gloomy voice, but she narrates her story with enough humor and personality to win the reader to her side (even while the reader protests, What you on about, girl? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you!). Her struggles are real and relatable, but she finds understanding through good friends, a good teacher, and parents who experience their own guilt and doubt. There are other friends she knows only through their music: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Etta James. Through them she finds a voice and a very important insight. “After last night’s talk with Dad I realize one thing. Everybody’s in pain. Billie, Etta, Ella. Grandma. Mama. Dad . . .” Even snarky girls who write hate lists. Everybody’s in pain because we know we don’t measure up—to the world’s standard or our own. The only way out is through the pain, not trying to make it go away.
NOTE: Genesis Begins Again was a 2020 Newbery Honor book and a finalist for the William C. Morris award given for first-time authors of YA fiction.
- The family expresses faith in God, but Genesis tries to make him agree with her. “I have to believe that God wouldn’t want me to have a hard life. I mean, I haven’t done anything that bad, and if He’s so good, then why punish me?” How would you answer her?
- Language issues: Genesis’s dad curses when he’s angry (3 “hells,” 1 “damn”), and her mom calls him out on it. There’s also one misuse of God’s name.
Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5
- Artistic/literary value: 4.5
NOTE: A very similar theme is explored in Sulwe, a picture book by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Simon & Shuster, 2019, 32 pages). Sulwe was born “the color of midnight,” unlike her parents and sister, who are all lighter shades. Even though she’s growing up in Africa, kids are kids everywhere, and to their real and imagined slights Sulwe responds with painful shyness. She tries eating light-color foods and experimenting with Mama’s makeup. Assurances from Mama that she is beautiful fall on deaf ears (mothers are supposed to think that!). But one night Sulwe gets a visit from a shooting star, who carries her into the legend of Night and Day, the Sky sisters. She learns there’s a place for night, just as there’s a place for every color. The message to wake up to the beauty in the world and in oneself is sumptuously illustrated, especially in the story of Day and Night.
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