Published by Roaring Brook Press on August 11th 2015
Genres: young adult, contemporary
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A story about first love, first fights, and finding yourself in a messed up world, from the acclaimed author of Happyface.Walter Wilcox has never been in love. That is, until he meets Naomi, and sparks, and clever jokes, fly. But when his cop dad is caught in a racial profiling scandal, Walter and Naomi, who is African American, are called out at school, home, and online. Can their bond (and mutual love of the Foo Fighters) keep them together?With black-and-white illustrations throughout and a heartfelt, humorous voice, Bright Lights, Dark Nights authentically captures just how tough first love can be...and why it's worth fighting for.
I went into this one, not knowing what to expect. There wasn’t a lot of buzz on this one, but the cover was so beautiful that I couldn’t pass it up! In fact, I was expecting a comic when I downloaded this one. The book does have quite a few graphics, but it is not a graphic novel.
Bright Light, Dark Nights is beautiful and heartbreaking, and there is going to be a lot of table smashing and wall kicking with this one, because despite the cute cover and the sweet description, this book hits hard with some very controversial themes.
When I discuss a novel, I usually start with the characters, since it is my main focus in a novel. However, the characters took a backseat to the atmosphere of the novel and for once, it made the novel stronger. The setting is basically an unnamed American slum, and the author builds up the surroundings with beautiful horror. Broken glass from a plate glass window that was broken in a robbery litters the sidewalk. Violence is a common lunchtime occurrence. People are not safe in their houses. Teenagers openly smoke on school grounds. The author creates a world that the reader can sense is unsafe, but the main character accepts as just a part of life. This is a very realistic and a very depressing reality for some teenagers. Their world is a violent, unpredictable place, and no amount of wishing or hoping is going to change it for them. They already live in a dystopia, every day. This demographic is not very represented in fiction: low socioeconomic status. Diversity should cover this population as well: kids living in neighborhoods plagued by poverty.
Going back to the characters, there was a well rounded list of diverse roles. There is Walter, who is struggling with his current living situation and working through his anger issues regarding his cheating yet depressed mother while living with a racist father who is failing to take care of his health. Naomi is the main love interest, but she never ventures into the unrealistic female romantic partner. She is very fleshed out, and I would argue that she is the strongest character of the novel, moreso than Walter. The majority of the people in the novel are black, and there is a range of them: troubled home, single mothers, nice part of the neighborhood, and the controversial black teen that is targeted by the police, leading to a social and media war with the police department of the city. I loved that the characters didn’t fall into one stereotype, and that the interactions and the issues where discussed without assigning particular racial profiles to each and every person.
The plot is a highly relevant topic at the moment. In the spirit of Baltimore, Ferguson, New York and Cleveland, the author uses this tension between the police force and the poor mostly black community to set up the story of racial profiling and the current atmosphere between the black community and the law officials.
Throughout the book, the author gives you the facts through Walter’s POV and allows the reader to come to their own conclusion without attempting to hijack the message of the novel. While the fight plays out, Walter is at the start of a budding romance with a black girl. Both sides don’t care for this arrangement, and Naomi and Walter are left to fend the right to date one another while the battle rages.
Honestly, the romance plays a large role in the novel, but it is refreshing, sweet and very realistic. I loved Naomi, and I wish we could have gotten closer to Walter. He has a reputation in the story for emotionally shutting down when hard issues come his way, and there was a sense of detachment in the story. At first, this was upsetting, but by the end of the story, Walter’s sister calls him out on this and pushed him to seek therapy due to the turmoil that they both faced while their dysfunctional parents neglected the needs of their children as their marriage fell to pieces. This was a pleasant twist, and I was thrilled to see an author take this matter seriously and outline that children from neglectful homes, kids that basically raise themselves in the shadow of a broken home, often need support and professional help to allow them to overcome years of damage.
This book is powerful. This book is something that we need to see right now. This is real life infiltrating art and becoming a marker to show the struggles of the time.
There were only a few issues I found with the novel. Jason, the best friend of Walter and the older brother of Naomi, goes out of his way to sabotage the relationship. In all honestly, I highly disliked Jason. His character was set up as a charming, the-devil-may-care personality, but I found him rather underhanded and vile. He tries to break up the relationship because Walter never asked his permission to date his sister. Jason dated white girls in the past, and then berates his sister for dating a white guy. Jason meets with their parents, behind closed doors, discussing Naomi’s relationship. Naomi’s brother goes so far as making her an online target to prove his point. And here is the thing that kills me: NOTHING COMES FROM ALL OF THIS.
Jason is given a pass because he was upset with Walter for not coming to him first. Walter and Jason have a heart-to-heart, and then, the happily ever after. Jason is never held accountable for his actions, which infuriated me to no end.
Bright Lights, Dark Nights is a wonderful edition to the YA shelves. The book tackles some of the tougher subjects of racist family member, racial conflicts, interracial dating, the end result of living in a neglectful household, and coming to terms with parents who are less than stellar when it comes to setting a positive example for their children to follow in life. The book doesn’t stray from everyday racism that man teenagers face, especially in the South. The author gears the topic towards a set of the population that doesn’t get a happy ending or an easy solution, but offers a beautiful tale of love and fighting for what is right in the face of opposition.