Monday, July 28, 2008

After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

The more I read, the more I liked the characters in After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. Responsible parents, loving and accepting families, kids with dreams, a neighborhood with people who watch out for one another, and friends to the end. Great stuff.

Whether it’s a big family or an only child and a single mother, the parents in the story recognize the importance of parenting. The narrator is an only child living with her single mother. Her best friend Neeka lives across the street with her parents, two older brothers, two younger brothers, and toddling twin sisters. Neither girl is allowed off the block, even though they’re twelve, and they complain that their moms are always watching. (Isn’t that a sure sign a parent is parenting?) Their friend D, whose mom has left, lives with a foster mother. The narrator and Neeka envy D’s freedom, but D envies their families.

Neeka’s oldest brother Tash was arrested and imprisoned for “doing something stupid.” The family recognizes what he did, knows the truth, and loves him anyway. Tash is openly gay, a fact accepted by the family even if his flamboyance isn’t always appreciated by his mom. When the family visits Tash in jail, Jayjones, second son and aspiring NBA player, “just kept looking at Tash and grinning, like he couldn’t believe he was getting to be right across from his big brother.” Two brothers couldn’t be more different, yet their relationship as brothers supersedes all differences. Rock solid relationships despite differences and difficulty. That’s family.

The narrator and Neeka dream of “roaming” like their friend D, while D dreams of her real mother, not a foster mother, and of finding her Big Purpose. Jayjones works toward his dream of playing in the NBA and taking care of his family. Tash hopes his experiences will help steer his siblings in the right direction – away from the law and the stupidity that attracts trouble.

Their neighborhood has front steps, men playing dominoes, moms watching out the window and seeing when their kids come and go, little girls who watch the older girls jump double-dutch and soon become the older girls themselves, and neighbors who know you by name. I’ll admit it: I like my neighborhood. I like my yard and being set back from the road and the air that, when the wind is right, brings the fresh smell of cut hay or the dairy farms just outside town. But there’s an attractive quality to the community built through a neighborhood’s physical closeness.

The narrator, Neeka, and new friend D spend two years together. D just shows up one day, watching them from across the street. They talk briefly, and the next time D arrives she brings her double-dutch rope. Woodson ties the timeline of their friendship to that of Tupac Shakur’s life – D arrived just before Tupac was shot the first time and left the summer before he died – and marvelously shows how people can see life through art, in this case Tupac’s lyrics and videos. Only real friends, knowing it’s not true, can still feel “like we’d grown up and grown old and lived a hundred lives in those few years that we knew [D].” Three girls. Three the Hard Way.

Can you tell I liked it? Are you sure? I want you to be sure since…here it comes…I’m not recommending it. Not because it’s not a good book. It is. But I’m recommending a specific type of book here, and this one doesn’t fit. After Tupac & D Foster deserves a place on library shelves and in classroom discussions and in the hands of the right readers, and I certainly hope it reaches those destinations.

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