Year of Publication: 2020
Genre: Realistic Fiction (Upper Middle Grade)
Format (How I Read It): Hardcover
From award-winning and bestselling author, Jewell Parker Rhodes comes a powerful coming-of-age story about two brothers, one who presents as white, the other as black, and the complex ways in which they are forced to navigate the world, all while training for a fencing competition.
Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, he feels as if he is constantly swimming in whiteness. Most of the students don’t look like him. They don’t like him either. Dubbed the “Black Brother,” Donte’s teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter skinned brother, Trey. Quiet, obedient.
When an incident with “King” Alan leads to Donte’s arrest and suspension, he knows the only way to get even is to beat the king of the school at his own game: fencing. With the help of a former Olympic fencer, Donte embarks on a journey to carve out a spot on Middlefield Prep’s fencing team and maybe learn something about himself along the way.
“After the contest, the fencers once again salute each other and shake hands. The winner mustn’t gloat; the loser mustn’t be vengeful.
Mutual respect is a sacred value for all fencers, at every level.”
Themes: Brotherhood. Mutual respect. Inequality & intersectionality. Success comes from being your best self. Respect. Patience. Control. Leadership. Losing is how we learn. You don’t have to let your mistakes define you. Hatred keeps you from seeing clearly. Integrity. Be confident in who you are. Take the time to really try to see the things and people around you. Don’t worry about how others see you.
“People make mistakes. Not everyone is defined by their mistakes. Like losing, you have to rebound. Parry and still score the touch.”
Character Development: I thought the character development in this book was really great. The main character, Donte, learns and grows so much throughout the story. I also thought his brother, Trey, grew a lot as well and learned how to be a better friend, ally, and brother. The supporting characters were great as well. I especially loved Donte’s coach and how his experiences inspired Donte.
“Be you. Stay confident, visible. Even if others can’t see you.”
Plot/Pacing: The pacing in this story was really well done. The chapters are short, there are some illustrations, and there are some sports scenes but they aren’t too long or too frequent. There are also both internal and external conflicts to keep the plot and the character development engaging. The story flowed really well and was entertaining the whole time!
“Courage, honor, integrity, and chivalry,” Coach murmurs when we finish fencing. It’s a secret between us. A signal that I shouldn’t make any of the mistakes he did.
Writing Style: Something I really liked was that, throughout the story, there were short little chapters mixed in that described some sort of fencing skill or technique. They were great because they not only helped you learn a little more about fencing, but they also immediately tied into whatever happened next in the story. They were masterfully done. Something else that was interesting about the writing style was that it almost felt like it was written in verse at times! For the most part, most of the paragraphs were so short that they felt like stanzas. There were also some odd paragraph breaks at times (often in the middle of dialogue), which also made it feel like poetry since poetry often has abrupt line breaks. Finally, the writing style was also interesting because the narration had a very “stream of consciousness” feel to it, with many of Donte’s thoughts and comments tacked on in parentheses at the end as an afterthought (like this. I wonder why?). I think it helped bring Donte to life as a character since it really made it feel like you were in his head as he’s thinking and feeling everything.
“My thoughts are wild. Coach is saying some things I’ve felt – like how easy it’d be to give in to people’s negative views. (If they think I’m a thug, why not act like one?) Like how easy it was to want revenge, to believe (no matter what) Alan’s humiliation was justified.”
“Bingeability”: Moderate-high. Short chapters and an engaging plot make it difficult to put down!
Emotional Investment: High. You really come to care for all of the characters and want them to be successful.
Windows and Mirrors: Racial bias. Class bias. Fencing. Prejudice. Private school. School-to-prison pipeline.
Overall Thoughts: Overall, I thought this was a really great sports book (and just a great book in general)! And fencing as the main sport? So cool! I’ve always been kind of fascinated with fencing (ever since I saw it in The Parent Trap movie if I’m being honest), so it was fun to get to learn more about it through this book! As much as I loved it though, I worry that for some students who don’t have any background knowledge on fencing it could be kind of difficult to understand and relate to. Fencing is definitely a sport that’s generally reserved for more financially privileged people; it’s not a super common sport by any means. That being said, there is definitely a lot of support throughout the novel in this regard. I loved the short chapters interspersed throughout the book dedicated to explaining relevant fencing strategies and skills, and I think those would really help for students who don’t have much background knowledge on the topic. Not only that, but I loved how the author used fencing as a metaphor for life. Everything Donte was learning through fencing was also something he could apply to his own life and experiences (and not just things he could only apply to fencing). It was perfect and didn’t feel forced at all.
Something I struggled with a little bit was that there was a lot of exposition explaining what was happening and how to feel about it. It felt like readers weren’t trusted to figure it out on their own. Subtle clues would be fine to help out younger readers (the target audience), but it felt like young readers weren’t being trusted at all to be smart enough to figure out what was happening and how to feel about it. Along those lines, the story was also told from the first person point of view of Donte. I thought this worked well because it felt like we were able to know Donte really well. The only limitation of this was that it often seemed like Donte somehow seemed to just know what everyone else was thinking all the time, which felt kind of odd to me. If the reader is meant to know what everyone is thinking without them actually expressing those feelings or stating them to other characters, then a third person POV may have been the way to go. Otherwise, there probably is a more realistic way that Donte could have learned what others were feeling or thinking.
In general though, I really enjoyed this book. I thought its take on the intersectionality of race and class was really important. We learn a lot about racial bias through the differences in how Donte and his brother are treated, but we also see how class intersects with this since the family is financially stable and the boys attend a fancy private school. It was a really well-written, important, and engaging book and I really enjoyed it.
Recommendation: I would recommend this book for grades six and up (though I think an argument could be made for 5th grade as well). It could be used in the classroom as an expert model for writing dialogue (specifically for how to use punctuation when writing dialogue), and it could also inspire some great writing prompts! The writing prompts could be more formal or they could be bell-ringer activities. One I thought of was, “What makes a good leader?” Donte takes on a leadership role in the story, and there are many adults in leadership roles around him (who have very different leadership styles). It would be interesting to see what kids think about this topic. In general, it would also be great for just independent reading! I’m excited to have this one in my classroom library this school year, and I would highly recommend it for both kids and adults!
Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!