Black, White, Other
This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine
This coming-of-age drama by Joan Steinau Lester is published by Zondervan and is written for kids ages 13 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
After 15-year-old Nina's parents divorce, she realizes that being biracial is affecting every area of her life.
Nina's younger brother, Jimi, lives with their black dad while Nina lives with their white mom across town. While spending the weekend at her father's house, she notices that her dad has started watching more TV and shares negative opinions about white people. Nina's dad gives her the first chapter of a book he is writing based on journal entries from her great-great-grandmother Sarah. Nina enjoys the story, so her father gives her parts of the manuscript periodically. Nina escapes from her own problems by reading Sarah's story.
Sarah is a slave in mid-1800s Virginia. She grew up going to church every Sunday with her family. After receiving her aunt's Bible, Sarah starts sneaking out at night to read the Bible with other slaves. Sarah's owner catches her reading, and she narrowly avoids being beaten because of it. After Sarah's owner sells all of her family, Sarah stops believing in God. An abolitionist disguised as a bird watcher tells her how to escape.
Back at school on Monday, Nina talks with her group, which includes her best friend, Jessica, about looting in the aftermath of a recent natural disaster. When Nina's friends start to express negative opinions about black people, Nina becomes defensive and storms off. Nina and Jessica's relationship seems to be changing. Not knowing where she fits, Nina sees a childhood friend, Lavonn, and sits with her at the "black" lunch table. Nina feels pressure to choose between being white and black.
Nina's mom notices that Nina is reading a story about slavery and forbids her to read more of it because of her growing attitude. Nina takes her frustrations out on her parents by talking back and yelling at them.
Nina finds out that her brother, Jimi, stole a bully's bike after he heard their dad say that white people "owe" black people. Then Nina becomes upset when her dad's new girlfriend, Helane, comes to her father's house. Nina runs back to her mom's house and remembers one of her friends, Fran, who ran away after Fran's dad moved away. Nina decides to run away to Fran's house, which is located across the state.
Nina steals her father's manuscript, returns the bike her brother stole, skips school and takes the city bus to the Montgomery Station. When her bus is delayed, Nina wanders the city and visits a church where she talks and prays with a priest, Father Jorge. He directs her to the church's meditation garden. Afterward, Nina buys food, goes to a park and sleeps under a bush.
Nina reads another chapter about Sarah's journey to freedom. Sarah walks several days before she arrives at the first "safe" house. The people there allow Sarah to rest and eat before she continues on her way. Sarah reaches free soil, but isn't sure what to do next. She hears a familiar hymn coming from a house and sits down on the doorstep to cry. A black woman comes out of the house and announces to her family that another slave has made it to their house. The family cares for Sarah.
Walking to the bus station in the morning, Nina realizes that she is running away from something, whereas Sarah was running to something. Nina misses her family and decides to return home. Nina goes to a café near her house to finish reading Sarah's story. A family friend notices her at the café and takes Nina to her parents.
Nina's parents, Jimi and the police are at her mom's house when Nina arrives. Her family is relieved to see her. The four sit down while Nina explains where she was. Nina realizes that she doesn't have to choose between being white or black; she can be both. When she returns to school, Nina decides that it is OK to be friends with everyone, regardless of their race.
God is used with bless [a person's name] a few times. Nina's dad talks openly about God. He believes that everyone is a child of God, despite race. Throughout the book, Nina wrestles with the existence of God. She doesn't think it is God's "great universe" because her family is falling apart and race separates people. Nina remembers her dad saying she needs to find her connection to God.
In a period of doubt, Nina wants to hear her dad encourage her in her faith in God and the unseen. After reading a section of Sarah's story, Nina wonders where her message from God is and concludes she has to do everything on her own. When Nina feels drawn into a cathedral, she meets Father Jorge. He tells Nina he never tires of God's magnificence and asks to pray for guidance for her and her safety. Sarah's journal also mentions praying for guidance. Nina wonders if God is trying to get her attention. When Nina takes a walk in the meditation garden by the church, she wonders if He isn't answering her because she is questioning God and is being disrespectful to her parents.
After running away and finding shelter under a bush, Nina prays for safety. Instead of finding peace as she prays, she wrestles with the Bible being truth because she doesn't understand how terrible things can happen to people. She concludes that God isn't with her. In the morning, a "divine spirit" comforts Nina and sorts everything out in her mind. She thinks her dad would call the "divine spirit" God. Nina concludes that God was speaking to her through Sarah's story to give her clarity.
Sarah's parents raised her in a Christian home. She remembers her parents saying a prayer before meals and praising God. Every Sunday, they went to African Baptist church where Ol' Mister Armstrong preached from the Bible. Sarah remembers hearing about Jesus and Bible stories, such as Moses leading his people to freedom. During one service, the preacher claims that they (black people) will go to heaven no matter what they do, and their masters will go to hell. Another message from these services is that any transgressions a slave committed against his master was committed against God, too. Slaves on the farm sang hymns and recited psalms.
In the chapter about Sarah's story titled "Did God Make White People Too?" Sarah's younger sister, Esther, asks where heaven is. Sarah remarks that it's high in the sky, but she doesn't know who goes to heaven. Esther shares that she has been told white people don't go to heaven.
Sarah receives a small Bible from her aunt. Sarah reads in secret with others at night. Another slave Ruth reads about God creating the earth. Ruth reminds Sarah that they need to dwell on good things like the Bible says. Sarah reads about Moses and the Day of Judgment. When they are caught reading the Bible, they are told that they do not have time to serve God. The slave owner curses the slaves' Bible. Sarah explains that she escaped getting whipped for reading because God saved her. Sarah believes that God wants her to escape.
Sarah questions where Jesus is in the midst of people getting sold and beaten. After her mother is sold, Sarah remembers her mom's order to pray for guidance. After her siblings are sold, Sarah stops praying, feeling that either God has given up on her or she has given up on God.
When Sarah starts to sing hymns, she finds hope in God. Sarah comments that God performed a miracle by sending the bird-watching man to her. When fellow slave Henry is set free, he praises the Lord. After hearing the Devil whispering thoughts of discouragement, Sarah rebukes him and is comforted by the thought of her uncle once saying to her that it's good to recognize the Devil's voice. Sarah thinks that when she is free, she will be taken from the jaws of evil and be able to do good works for God. Along her journey to freedom, Sarah continues to read verses from her Bible. When Sarah reaches a house on free soil, a woman exclaims that by the grace of God Sarah has come to them.
Other Belief Systems
Nina and Sarah both have visions. In class, Nina starts to zone out and sees a vision of her brother being chased by a bully. During her journey to freedom, Sarah comments that she hears her mother's voice telling her to run away. Nina has a similar experience after she runs away from home and is approached by a social worker. She hears her mother's voice, which tells her not to talk to the social worker. Nina believes in luck. She comments that her luck is changing after she makes it through a night on the streets. Nina talks about lucky numbers. Her parents say that black cats are good luck.
Ghetto is used several times by black kids to describe something "cool" and by white kids to describe something in a negative light. At the end of the book, Nina combines "ghetto" with the term "preppy" to describe herself. The word Negro is used derogatorily a few times. Slave owners use the word h---. Slut is also used a couple of times. Mild slang includes butt and "hecka."
When Nina was younger, her friend Jessica had a mother who was diagnosed with a mental illness. Nina remembers that Jessica's mom stabbed herself repeatedly in the arm with a kitchen knife, and Jessica had to clean up the blood.
Nina shares about a gang fight that happened at school but doesn't go into detail. Nina threatens to beat up her brother if he doesn't tell her what he is doing and punches him repeatedly. Nina uses the phrases going to be killed and killing someone several times throughout the book.
The slave owner slaps Sarah's mother on her rear end as she steps up into a wagon. The bounty hunters threaten to kill Sarah if she tries to escape and to chop off her hands if she is found reading. When Sarah is caught reading with other kids, Sarah watches as the others are forced to strip naked, are pinned to the ground and are whipped until blood is drawn.
Jessica raves about a "half-hour" kissing scene in a movie. Nina walks past strip club signs: "Adults Only" and "New Shows, Auditions Daily." She decides she would never be desperate enough for money to stand naked in front of someone.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Nina feels that God spoke to her through Sarah's story.
What are some ways that God speaks to you?
Why does Nina feel the need to run away?
- If you were Nina, would you have run away?
If not, what would you have done instead?
Nina sees one of her "friends" steal something from a store.
What would you have done in Nina's place after she is falsely accused of stealing the item her friend stole?
Nina feels torn between being "black" and "white."
- Why does she feel the need to choose between the two?
Have you ever felt torn between two groups? How did you feel?
Nina was surprised when her father began to express a negative attitude toward white people.
- Unknowingly, how does he insult her by saying these things?
- How do his words make her struggle to find herself more difficult?
Racial issues: The issue of racial prejudices is prominent throughout the book. Nina's dad comments that the police are trigger-happy and they shoot anything "brown" that moves.
Stealing/Lying: The recurring theme of stealing echoes throughout the book. When Nina and her friends go to the candy store, Nina's peer steals candy and lies about it. Nina lies to her parents several times. Jimi steals a bike from another boy. Sarah steals a bowl from another slave family. When one of the other slaves asks if Sarah has seen the bowl, she gives it back. Nina and her friends sneak into an R-rated movie.
Smoking/Alcohol/Gambling: Jimi thinks that smoking is cool and admires people who smoke. Nina comes across several drunken people. Sarah hears a rumor that her plantation's neighbor, Ol' Winston, has gambled away his money. Sarah's owner, Ol' Armstrong, starts gambling, drinking and beating slaves.
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Readability Age Range
13 and up
Joan Steinau Lester