review: American Street | a fantastic YA novel about U.S. immigration and family

american streetTitle: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Published in 2017 by Balzer + Bray
Genre: contemporary fiction (YA)
Rating: ★★★★.₅ – loved it

On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.

But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.

Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

my thoughts on - review black (1)

American Street is a book I’d been interested in reading for a while, but not necessarily enough to purchase a copy of my own. I don’t mean that in an offensive way, before anyone asks. There are just so many books I want to read, and I can’t afford to buy them all. I was lucky enough to spot a copy of this novel at my local library, and knew I had to take it with me. I’m glad I got a chance to read this, because it was absolutely fantastic.

This is the story of Fabiola, who is immigrating to the U.S. with her mother. They’ve left Port-au-Prince, not only to find a better life but also to be reunited with their family. When they arrive in JFK Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, and Fabiola has to continue the journey to Detroit on her own. Her cousins are there to welcome her to the U.S. and take her to her new home, which is her aunt’s house.

I found this to be such an interesting take on immigration, and I’d urge pretty much everyone to read this. There’s a duality in Fabiola’s life in Detroit. On the one hand, she wants to belong and fit in with her new country, and her family. That requires her to become more “American”, and drop some of her habits and beliefs that she held so close in Haiti. On the other hand, she needs to hold on to those habits and beliefs, because they have made her into the person she is. They’re such a big part of her, and she doesn’t want to just forget about them. While she’s dealing with all of this, she’s also trying to reunite with her mom.

There’s so much going on in this book; I don’t really know where to start. One of my favorite parts of American Street was watching Fabiola adjust to life in the United States. It’s so different from her life in Haiti, and it left her feeling like she was being swept away by the river at times – like she couldn’t find her footing. She has to enroll in school with her cousins, and act a completely different way. In Detroit, she has to look tough. She has to let people know they can’t mess with her. It’s so far removed from the girl she actually is, and you can see her struggle to put up a front. I truly felt for her when she talked about how much she missed speaking (Haitian) Creole, because her aunt wouldn’t allow her to do so. She needed to speak English at all times, even at home with her family. She missed Haitian food, and cooking with her mom, so much but had to settle for American food instead. I can’t imagine having such a big part of who you are taken away from you: your language, the face you present to the world, and the cuisine you were raised with. I know that I’m privileged to have never known what that’s like, since I was born and raised in Belgium and still live here.

Fabiola also learns to practice her religion in the dead of night, so no one will see her and misinterpret. After all, people will easily assume that she’s “doing voodoo” which has been given an awful connotation by Western people. She even tries to hide it from her family members, but doesn’t want to give it up at the same time. She needs to pray. For her mom. For her cousins. For her aunt.

American Street is an #ownvoices novel when it comes to immigrating from Haiti to the U.S. as the author did the exact same with her mother at age 4. I think she drew such a vivid portrait of that experience in this book, and I’m grateful for the glimpse into her life it provided me.

There are so many interesting characters in this book. I’ve already talked about my love for Fabiola’s character earlier, but I feel like I can’t properly express my feelings for her still. Other important characters in the novel are her cousins: Chantal, Donna, and Princess. You truly start to care about all of them, even if you can’t agree with their choices. That especially applies to Donna, here.

There’s also a romance in this book. Fabiola starts dating a guy she meets through Donna’s boyfriend even though she isn’t entirely sure about it at the start. He’s incredibly nice to her and always treats her with kindness, which leads to her developing feelings for him gradually. All I wanted is to wrap him up in a blanket and protect him from the world. While I didn’t think this book necessarily needed a romance, its presence didn’t bother me in the slightest.

Aside from immigration, this novel also talks about drug use, abuse, and drug dealing. I think it’s necessary to include topics like this in YA literature, because removing them from the conversation won’t stop it from happening. It gave the book a tense, dramatic story line that kept the reader glued to the pages.

My only criticism for American Street is that I felt it was a tad too short for everything it was trying to achieve. It’s only 336 pages long, but discusses so many topics. In my opinion, that lead to some things not being developed as well as they could’ve been.

Obviously, this is a book I’d recommend. Even though I didn’t think I’d end up loving it at first – because I don’t read that much hard hitting YA contemporaries – I’m so glad I decided to give it a chance.

2 thoughts on “review: American Street | a fantastic YA novel about U.S. immigration and family

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