Review | Color Me In
Title: Color Me In
Author: Natasha Díaz
Release Date: August 20th, 2019
Who is Nevaeh Levitz?
Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, sixteen-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom's family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.
Nevaeh wants to get to know her extended family, but one of her cousins can't stand that Nevaeh, who inadvertently passes as white, is too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices they face on a daily basis as African Americans. In the midst of attempting to blend their families, Nevaeh's dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen, which guarantees social humiliation at her posh private school. Even with the push and pull of her two cultures, Nevaeh does what she's always done when life gets complicated: she stays silent.
It's only when Nevaeh stumbles upon a secret from her mom's past, finds herself falling in love, and sees firsthand the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has a voice. And she has choices. Will she continue to let circumstances dictate her path? Or will she find power in herself and decide once and for all who and where she is meant to be?
What I Liked
From the very first chapter (which I guess is more of a prologue!), I was struck emotionally by the theme of the book. Child Nevaeh and her mother are at a playground, and a white mother mistakes Nevaeh's Black mother as Nevaeh's nanny. This chapter also shows us the woman Nevaeh's mother really is--patient, proud, and strong--versus what we'll see for most of the rest of the book. Devastated by Nevaeh's father's infidelity, her mother is largely paralyzed by depression and grief.
The development of Nevaeh as a character is slow and thoughtful, like a flower blooming one petal at a time. Her dual identities are weighed equally and balance each other back and forth. The poetry throughout the book, both what Nevaeh writes herself as well as the poetry of her peers, is beautiful and lyrical and at times sad, but always powerful.
Nevaeh's father is Jewish but not terribly observant, a Jewish background that is similar to my own. Knowing vaguely that this is a piece of your heritage, but not knowing how to interact with it, is a strange feeling of disconnection and longing to be allowed into a space that you ultimately do have the right to occupy. Nevaeh's Torah study with a rabbi-in-training opens up her understanding of the Jewish side of her heritage, and is done in a very realistic way. Those of us Jews who were not involved in synagogue from a young age, who had to struggle to learn Hebrew as adults, who felt like we were stray balloons floating on the periphery of the party, will understand Nevaeh's feelings toward her late bat mitzvah.
Díaz artfully brought Nevaeh closer to her mother via her mother's old journals from when she was in college and had just met Nevaeh's father. This glimpse into her parents' past shows not only their budding love and a side to her parents that we don't really see in the present, but also the racism that Nevaeh's mother deals with, and her father's own casual (unintentional? but still harmful and unexamined) racism that he imposes upon her. Díaz's own experiences informed Nevaeh's interaction with racism within the Jewish community--anti-Blackness is an ugly part of some Jewish communities, and Díaz brings to light that anti-Blackness in a sensitive and enlightening way.
Sexual assault: It happens very early in the book, and is not an assault of Nevaeh but of her mother, told in a journal entry. The assault itself is detailed enough to make the reader uncomfortable, but vague enough that it isn't gratuitous. It is not an arbitrary assault for shock value; it informs much of Nevaeh's mother's character as she goes to college and interacts with Nevaeh's father. The psychological effect it has on her self-worth is poignant and heart-breaking, and as the journal entries progress the reader is at the same time joyful that Nevaeh's mother is able to work through her feelings of guilt and worthlessness via her positive interactions with Nevaeh's father, but also furious that one day, her father is going to undo all of that trust and love by betraying her in the worst way possible. This is another of Díaz's skillful emotional push-and-pulls when it comes to Nevaeh's understanding of her parents, and helps us understand why her mother, who is demonstrated to be a powerful woman otherwise, is brought so low by her father's cheating. This old, deep psychological wound is reopened violently by his betrayal, and her near-catatonic response is not only a response to the betrayal itself, but a re-triggering of her previous certainty that she is worthless and unlovable. If you are disturbed by depictions of sexual assault, it occurs during Nevaeh's first reading of her mother's journal (this is framed very clearly), and should be skipped for mental health protection.
Racist violence: When Jesús meets Nevaeh at her school and Nevaeh gets into a fight with Abby, a school security officer steps in, resulting in physical and emotional violence against Nevaeh and Jesús. There are no firearms involved. Jesús and Nevaeh are not harmed in a way that requires medical attention. This occurs in Chapter 36 and is mentioned without details in Chapter 37. If you are sensitive to depictions of racism-instigated violence, this part of the story can be skipped for mental health protection.
Cyberbullying: Abby uses nude photos she took of Nevaeh to humiliate her at school. The bullying itself happens in Chapter 36 and the photos are described again in Chapter 38. If you are sensitive to depictions of sexually-focused cyberbullying, this part of the story can be skipped for mental health protection.
What I Would Have Liked to See
Some of the antagonists, especially Nevaeh's father's new girlfriend, are unsubtle in their deviousness and are bordering on sitcom villain levels of evil. Several of them turn out to be at least sympathetic villains: Nevaeh's snobby classmate who she's forced to do science projects with is a jerk because her father is a very true-to-life conservative bigot who is racist, transphobic, and isn't afraid of expressing those opinions loudly. The classmate's outright meanness begins to make sense as we're exposed to her home life and upbringing. I wanted to apply this same understanding of villainy to Nevaeh's father's girlfriend, but she appears to be an uncomfortably evil presence without pathos who is terrible to Nevaeh for no real reason (and cooks disgusting food lol). I definitely don't want her to be forgiven for being an unrepentant home wrecker, but I think she would have been a slimier villain with some subtlety folded in.
My absolute favorite part of the book was Nevaeh's bat mitzvah. Throughout the book, Díaz skillfully set up the two seemingly opposing sides of Nevaeh's life in such a way that they seemed incompatible, like oil and water. When Nevaeh is going forward with her bat mitzvah even after her father's girlfriend bungles everything about it, I was wondering how on earth this was going to turn out to be something that would carry any sort of significance for Nevaeh. The coming together of all parts of her life into one stunningly unique ceremony brought me to actual tears. The bat mitzvah scene is absolutely beautiful.
When Nevaeh's parents separate, she unsteadily traverses their two separate worlds to come to embrace who she really is.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for my honest review. All thoughts are my own!
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