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Nigeria Jones, by Ibi Zoboi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

How many plots are there? You’ll hear different numbers bandied about–three, five, whatever–but they all seem to agree that you can boil everything down to just a few plots if you try hard enough. And this is definitely one of the classics: young person strives to find her place in the world, making a start on sorting out how she feels about parents, larger family group, immediate community, and larger culture.

Other than relatability, one of the reasons this is such a classic plot is that the details matter so much to it. It may be the same plot, but it’s not the same story over and over again, not by a long shot. Especially not when a writer like Ibi Zoboi uses it as the framework for the story of a contemporary young woman raised in a Black Nationalist household with community leader parents.

Nigeria herself is beautifully drawn, complex and conflicted, frequently angry and confused but never one-dimensionally so. She makes bad decisions–and good ones; she doesn’t always have a chance to have her say when she would like to do so, but she does speak up for herself a lot. Her relationships are complex and conflicted as well: a best friend with whom she’s drifted, a cousin with whom the larger family situation has gotten complicated, a couple of new boys with very different backgrounds, assumptions, things that they want of Nigeria. And then, especially, there’s her parents. Her father, whose expectations of her don’t leave a lot of room for the things she wants for herself. Her mother, whose absence has become a defining presence in her life. The shape of Nigeria’s mother’s absence and what exactly happened is beautifully done, with the light dawning for the reader in emotionally evocative ways before Nigeria is ready to talk about them directly herself.

I’m definitely not the target audience for this book. I’m a 44-year-old white lady, and this is definitely YA–and I firmly believe that no matter how much we adults can love MG and YA, we’re not the people it’s written for. But you can enjoy things that are not primarily for you, and I definitely did enjoy this. It is full of respect for the young people it portrays, it wrings joy from the hard places, it is just plain beautifully done.

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