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4 December 2021 WHEN YOU LOOK LIKE US by Pamela N. Harris, HarperCollins/Quill Tree, January 2021, 368p., ISBN: 978-0-06-294589-1


“I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow

And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow”

— Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City” (1973)


Just after 9/11, I got involved in booktalking and reading aloud to a bunch of eighth graders at the local middle school. I was then on the cusp of beginning a three-year gig as part of what was then known as BBYA–YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults committee.


I got a lot of appreciation for volunteering at the middle school. The father of one of the eighth graders–a tech guy–set me up with my first Richie’s Picks website for free. Back then, you needed to know some coding in order to post, so a nifty tech-ed lesson came with the deal. Reading my butt off for BBYA, while regularly networking with those students over the next few years, gave me a pretty good grasp on what turns on middle school readers. Including the reluctant ones.


“That’s when I notice the two white guys behind him, crackling like he’s the star of some Seth Rogen movie. They’re pretty nondescript–just Lackey No. 1 and Lackey No. 2. Both wearing the same hoodie as their douchey ringleader. The earthy smell of bliss seeping out of their pores, almost overtaking the Pine-Sol cologne. They probably scored in my neighborhood. Guys like them always perch in front of Javon’s building, not willing to step outside of their fancy cars and walk in their fancy shoes to the stoop. Instead, they demand full service like they’re ordering burgers at a Sonic Drive-In. Most don’t bother to look my way, but the ones that do give me the same you-must-bow-down-to-me head nod like these corn nuts. Great. Now I have to catch an extra dose of that condescension working the night shift at Taco Bell, Fick my life.”


WHEN YOU LOOK LIKE US by Pamela N. Harris is a book I would have enthusiastically booktalked to those eighth-graders, and would have enthusiastically fought for in the BBYA committee room. It’s a heck of a story–a can’t-put-it-down contemporary tale with a first-person narrator with whom many middle school students will readily connect.


Jay Murphy is a black high school junior living in a tough part of Newport News, Virginia. His dad is dead. His mom is in prison. The only reason that Jay’s actually got a shot at a real future, rather than being dead, homeless. or a criminal, is that his health-challenged paternal grandmother MiMi has taken on raising him and his sister Nicole. Talk about, “There but for the grace of God go I.” 


Jay is a good kid who understands full well that he’d have been sunk without MiMi. He’s hollowed out a hole in his mattress where he’s secretly squirreling away every spare buck he can scam so that there will be a retirement fund for MiMi once he and Nic are able to stand on their own two feet. (It’s certainly not ethical for Jay to market himself as an essay-writer-for-hire, but there’s a good argument to be made here about the end justifying the means. And it shows Jay to be a very good student.)


But then, Nicole mysteriously disappears. WHEN YOU LOOK LIKE US is a mystery/thriller that takes place over the next couple of weeks, as the clock ticks down on the hope that Jay will ever again see his beloved sister alive. 


The author has made the book acceptable to middle schooler parents and librarians by employing euphemisms in place of the swear words and making up fictional slang terms for the drugs that are part and parcel of Jay’s neighborhood. Jay’s black neighborhood.


And why are there neighborhoods like Jay’s? This is the important question that will hopefully lead some young readers to learn about the history of housing discrimination in America.  And, as many of us know all to well, housing discrimination in America, just like policing discrimination in America, is a current issue, not a history lesson.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com






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