Sister Mischief, Laura Goode, Candlewick (2011)
I’m Esme Rockett, foul-mouthed, prickly syntaxed, oddly dressed, and gay.
So listen, if you’re not already hooked by an author who uses phrases like “prickly syntaxed” and creates a protagonist by the name of Esme Rockett, well, you should be.
Esme Rockett is a half-Jew who lives outside Minneapolis. She’s abandoned by her mother and falling in love with one of her best friends. She’s also an MC in the best almost-all-white hip-hop girl group this side of the Twin Cities, Sister Mischief. Esme Rockett is a badass.
Our story begins with Esme and her three besties, who make up the rest of Sister Mischief, rankled by a new school code of conduct all students at their top-tier high school are supposed to sign. The new rule? Rap is outlawed, along with any other behavior or material associated with this “violence-inducing culture.” Pissed off and full of creative energy, Sister Mischief refuse to sign and create their own new club in retaliation.
Combining their anger over this new attack on expression with their dismay over the lack of a gay-straight alliance at their school, their club is called Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos. Or — for a little extra tongue-in-cheek suburbia smugness — 4H for short.
This swirling of hip-hop justice with queer justice seems a bit of a stretch at first, but I believe it does work, especially as the novel moves forward and the ladies of Sister Mischief grow increasingly passionate about their mission. 4H works as a combatant against all that is taboo in their white, Protestant community, the things that scare their racist and homophobic elders the most. As they eventually articulate in their mission statement, “Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos celebrates sameness in collective otherness.”
While the 4H storyline is fascinating and full of endless interesting discussions about hip-hop and culture — who owns it, what it means, how it relates to their world — that only veers towards didactic occasionally, it’s Esme’s personal growth that pulls you in the most.
I knew I would like this novel in the first chapter, when the trying-to-be-with-a-dude-just-to-make-sure storyline happens, a storyline which I’m starting to feel slightly tired of in these novels. But at least it’s over quickly in this one. And in the middle of it, this was the line that hooked me: “Charlie Knutsen is meat and I want fruit. I’d known it all along.”
The relationship she develops with her fellow MC, Rowie, is lovely and fierce, all-consuming, and secret. Secrets, alas, rarely turn out well. The heartache that eventually spills all through Esme’s life is complex and real and I felt it so hard. Perhaps because, along with the rest of the novel, it was so well-written.
I also have to mention the diversity, because it’s something that’s so often lacking in this genre. Rowie (actually Rohini) is Indian-American, a culture I’d actually never seen mentioned in queer YA lit before. Two of Esme’s friends at school are Somalian refugees. Then there is Esme’s own Jewish blood. Although since she inherited it from her estranged mother, coming to terms with a heritage and faith she feels she doesn’t actually own is yet another struggle. Faith, in general, is another issue that’s threaded throughout.
There are a lot of “issues” in this book: sexual identity, faith, hip-hop, feminism, racism, hate crimes, protesting, but it’s done well. And when it’s done well, it doesn’t have to be an “issue” book. It can just be a good book.
Another thing in here that’s not seen too often in queer YA lit: a really, really good dad. He and Esme’s constant refrain to each other is, “I love you no shit.” I loved this book no shit. You should read it.