Assigned Reading – Kendra by Coe Booth

I began reading Kendra by Coe Booth about a week ago, with the hopes that it would live up to its reputation as a popular urban novel about the trials and tribulations of a 14 year old girl growing up in the South Bronx. Teachers from a KIPP school in Washington, DC, had reported that they couldn’t keep the book on the shelves of their classroom libraries because it was so highly sought after by their 7th and 8th grade KIPPsters. The LA Times had praised the author (also of Tyrell, another novel about growing up in the inner city), claiming that Kendra was the book of the year. I’m sorry to say that I disagreed with everyone on all fronts.

The protagonist and narrator, Kendra, is an angry, lonely freshman at a high school for the arts in the Bronx. She lives in the projects with her grandmother and spends many of her nights wishing her mother would come home. Her mother had her when she was 14 years old, (enter: cheesy parallelism) leaving the grandmother, known as Nana, to raise Kendra while she focused on growing up herself. The mother, unlike many cliche mother figures in young adult fiction, has not gone off the deep end or become a drug addict or street walker. Instead, she has gone off to Princeton to earn a PhD in sociology. At the start of the novel, Renee (Kendra’s mother) has just graduated and is job hunting for teaching positions in universities in New York and Boston. Kendra, meanwhile, has been waiting on pins and needles for her mother to return to the Bronx to finally be with her. Now that her education is complete, Kendra hopes, Renee will be the mother she’s been wishing for her entire life.

Unfortunately, things don’t go as she had dreamed. Not only is Renee in an inattentive mother, but she is not at all prepared to help Kendra navigate the muddy waters of high school. Things are further complicated by a good looking junior named Nashawn who flirts with Kendra and her best friend/aunt Adonna incessantly at school. Kendra, like her mother before her, is forced to grow up quickly and make some serious decisions about sex, friendship, and family in a very short span of time. Kendra, in some ways, follows in her mother’s footsteps, jeopardizing her future and her living situation. In the end, things work out for Kendra, but unrealistically so, leaving me wondering what message is being sent to teenage readers of Booth’s work.

I know that many of the KIPPsters who come back from break having read this book will report that they enjoyed it immensely. And why not? It’s racy, it’s sexy, it’s written in street dialect, it’s relatable. But is it good? I’m not sure. Does it have literary merit? Again, I’m not sure. In the end, Kendra gets almost everything she wants, despite giving into the pressures of a boy, abandoning the grandmother who raised her from birth, breaking the heart of an innocent admirer, and betraying her best friend. There is a subplot about Kendra’s passion for art and architecture, which I was hoping would be developed more intricately as a parallel to her lifestyle choices, but it went nowhere. There is a message about good parenting vs. personal gain, but again, that message falls flat. There are numerous scenes that are sexually tense and uncomfortable. Normally, I don’t have a huge problem with racy material, but I do have a problem with characters making bad decisions that they are then rewarded for handsomely.

I am very interested to hear what my students have to say about the novel, as I’m sure it’s fast paced banter and intense depictions of sexual exploration were attractive to the 11 kids who read the book over spring break. I just hope they don’t put too much stock in Booth’s messages and don’t laud Kendra as a hero to inner city youth. Because, unfortunately, she’s not.

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