Family Is Everywhere

Some Places More Than Others – Renée Watson, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

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Amara Baker is an African-American middle school student growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, in a community unlike the one her father, Charles, knew at her age, when he lived in Harlem, New York City.  Amara’s parents are expecting a long-wanted second child, leading Amara to question if and how her role in the family will change.  But overall, her life is good. Her parents are protective and loving, even if her mother, a designer, seems disappointed sometimes that Amara feels more uncomfortable in her fashionable dresses than in her sneaker collection from Nike, where her father is an executive.

There is no crisis looming in her life, until her teacher, Mr. Rosen, assigns the Suitcase Project.  Asked to interview family members and to determine which special objects and experiences she will choose to represent in her suitcase, Amara needs to confront her father’s estrangement from his own father, Amara’s only living grandparent.  A trip to Harlem to spend time with him and with her extended family becomes an unanticipated opportunity to learn about her own past, as well as the past of her people.

Renée Watson’s narrative skills are expert and subtle.  Amara’s story could easily have become one of dramatic clashes between angry relatives, or singular moments of realization that African-American history is full of previously unknown riches.  Instead, the Harlem trip is full of illuminating moments, when Amara takes in the cultural landmarks which she has missed in Oregon, but which were always a part of her through her parents’ strength and pride.  Whether embarrassing her cousins by taking photos of the Apollo Theater or touring the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with her enthusiastic Grandpa Earl, Amara is thoughtfully filling her mind and her heart, as well as her suitcase, with inspiration from the past.  Standing on the famed mosaic tribute to poet Langston Hughes, Amara notes that “I don’t take my phone out to capture this.  I just want to stand here, just want to be.”

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Not everything in the past is an unambiguous source of pride.  There is the bitterness and anger between Amara’s father and grandfather, and the tensions with her cousins, whose own father is absent but who share a deep bond with the grandfather which had been unavailable to Amara. During the trip, Amara tests some limits of independence, and her father reflects on his own authority as a parent.  In one scene at his mother’s grave, Amara’s father recites an original poem which is Watson’s implicit dialogue with Hughes’s “Mother to Son.”  In a book filled with profoundly moving moments of recognition about the ties between parents and children, this one stood out for its emotional impact.

Some Places More Than Others is an unusual chronicle of a child’s journey towards understanding of her family and her own place within it. Some books do this more than others; this is one you will want to put in your suitcase.

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