Thursday, September 25, 2014

Knockout GamesThis month's book was a doozy. I don't want to give too much away, so I'm just going to share the description and then let you dive right into our book club chat!

* * *

For Kalvin Barnes, the only thing that comes close to the rush of playing the knockout game is watching videos of the knockout game. Kalvin's crew always takes videos of their KOs, but Kalvin wants more something better. He thinks if someone could really see the game for what it was, could appreciate it, could capture the essence of it that would be a video for all time. The world would have to notice. 

That's where Erica comes in. She's new in town. Awkward. Shy. White. But she's got a good camera and a filmmaker's eye. She could learn. Kalvin could open her eyes to the power he sees in the knockout game; he could make her see things his way. But first she'll have to close her eyes to everything else. 

For a while, Kalvin's knockouts are strangers. For a while, Erica can ignore their suffering in the rush of creativity and Kalvin's attention. Then comes the KO that forces her eyes open, that makes her see what's really happening. No one wins the knockout game.


* * *

The Reading Date: So, general impressions of KNOCKOUT GAMES? My thoughts: Tense. Uncomfortable. Riveting.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, very tense and out of my comfort zone to read.
We Heart YA: I liked that I really didn't know where things would end up for Erica and for Kalvin.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, I was never sure of Kalvin for the majority of the book, which of course, is exactly how she felt too.
The Reading Date: Erica was so desperate to belong and Kalvin completely charms her. It would be interesting to read this book from Kalvin's perspective, though the outsider pov was also compelling.
We Heart YA: I think it would have been really difficult to write this story from Kalvin's POV and have it offer readers a satisfying ending... However, I still felt uncertain about using a "white girl outsider" as the narrator. Also, the jacket copy seemed to be more from Kalvin's POV, so Erica's narration came as a surprise to me. I liked her arc, her story. But I just wasn't sure about how her race and outsider-ness factored in...? (Like, I'm not saying it's bad. I'm just not sure it's good either?)
We Heart YA: Also, as much as the book tries to humanize the group of kids who played the knockout games -- and to show what would lead them to do it -- I still really, really struggled to understand and empathize. (But I LOVE that the story pushed me to try!)
The Reading Date: Great points! I think we are meant to be really uncomfortable with the KO games and I agree that it was very hard to empathize. All of the members of the group including Erica seem to come from broken homes and were seeking to take back some control in their lives.
Teen Lit Rocks: I found this story really timely given what happened in Ferguson. It made me think of black kids so disenfranchised that they feel like they're in this band of brothers where the only control and power they have is to see if they're man enough to knock someone out.
We Heart YA: YES. I was definitely thinking about Ferguson too.
The Reading Date: This response in the Q&A is relevant to our discussion:
"4. How did you come to incorporate the diverse elements in your book? In real life, most of the kids engaged in this game were black. I made one of the main characters white because I didn’t want white people to write it off as a ‘black thing’. I wanted to show these kids were human and not so different than you despite what they were doing. I was also very interested in exploring mixed race couples and how that affected the larger groups. It gave plenty of opportunity to talk about race and gender issues and things that are going on now in Ferguson." 
We Heart YA: Yes, I love that he touched on so much in this book. The story was really rich that way. The violence, the desire to belong, mixed race relationships, art as an outlet, the danger of social media, etc...
The Reading Date: This book does incorporate so many topical issues! It was interesting the way they used social media, especially Facebook (something teens don't use much). How could they think the videos they shared were private? I was cringing when Kalvin recorded Erica and his private moment.
Teen Lit Rocks: Well you can share things just with one person on FB so that's not completely out of the question. 
We Heart YA: Yeah. Also, despite the use of the name, I didn't take "Facebook" too literally -- I just thought of it as whatever social media network kids might be into at the time.
Teen Lit Rocks: I liked the brief moment we met Kalvin's mom.
We Heart YA: Yeah... his mom was kind of heartbreaking, though.
The Reading Date: The scenes where we were let inside Kalvin's life were powerful and explained a lot.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, of course, but it humanized him. And he's right when he tells Erica she could never understand because a white girl wouldn't be targeted the way he and his friends are -- even before they started getting into trouble.
The Reading Date: Have the knockout games been an issue in either of your neighborhoods and if not how would you react if they started to pop up?
We Heart YA: Not in my neighborhood specifically, but there were a couple incidents in the Cincinnati area last year that were (at least according to the news) due to the "wave of Knockout Games sweeping the nation" (or whatever). It's definitely scary, the idea that you're not safe anywhere. And that you could be targeted randomly, for no reason. I didn't personally react in any particular way, except to be sad (and a bit skeptical) about the idea of anyone taking pleasure in that kind of senseless violence. I'm sure there was some increased police presence in the areas where the incidents occurred.
Teen Lit Rocks: I think they're a thing here in DC and also in Baltimore.
The Reading Date: Why do you think Erica got involved? Because of her frustration over her broken home? Needing to belong? Wanting to be admired for her video skills? Falling for Kalvin?
We Heart YA: All of the above, lol.
Teen Lit Rocks: I think all of the above! She was lonely and out of place and wanted to feel a connection to anyone since her mom was working such long hours and they basically had split shifts. I'm not saying it's her mom's fault, but I think her mom definitely didn't do her research about the neighborhood where she was moving and how it would affect Erica to be one of very few white kids at the high school. And obviously she was too broke to live anywhere else.
Teen Lit Rocks: And yes, of course it helps when a guy who looks like Dr. Avery from Grey's Anatomy starts showing an interest in you!!
The Reading Date: I like that this book doesn't provide easy answers, though I wish there were some.
We Heart YA: Ditto. (And LOL at the Grey's reference.) I guess I'm an idealist, but I wish even the worst neighborhoods in this country wouldn't have problems like this. I mean, I know you're not going to get a perfect utopia... but I think we can do better, with allocating resources, with supporting and nurturing more teachers to be like Mrs. Lee, etc.
Teen Lit Rocks: Well, there are working poor communities that are safer than others. And depending on where you live, they are usually more diverse although still segregated. But I'm sort of a pessimist when it comes to race relations and neighborhoods that have experienced white flight. Those neighborhoods are basically abandoned and then they're treated so poorly by the police or just generally written off… And then things don't change unless white hipsters or desperate couples with means decide to risk it and buy in those neighborhoods.
The Reading Date: I think the town [in the story] needed more Mrs. Lee's...
We Heart YA: For sure! Although I'm glad the story included black "good guys" too, like Destiny and Tyreese.
The Reading Date: I liked Destiny's friendship with Erica especially.
[Note: The next part is a partial spoiler, though the general idea of a tragic turning point is pretty obvious from the book's blurb.]
The Reading Date: It's sad that a death that hits close to home has to happen before people start to wake up. 
We Heart YA: Yes, it seems like 99% of the time, that's the real catalyst for action. For problems that are seen and known and just ignored for a long time.
Teen Lit Rocks: I think this would be a great book for high schoolers to read during an urban studies or current events or race relations unit. So much to discuss!
We Heart YA: Yes. To be honest, I can't say I enjoyed reading it -- like, "Oh how fun! I would recommend this to all my friends!" -- but I think it was an important and useful story.
Teen Lit Rocks: Right -- it's not a light and breezy read, but it will stay with you I think.
The Reading Date: Absolutely! I want to check out G. Neri's back catalog - I like his voice in the YA landscape.

For more on KNOCKOUT GAMES, be sure to check out all the YA Diversity Club posts:

••• Q&A with author G. Neri at Teen Lit Rocks. Neri talks about what inspired the story, what he hopes the book might accomplish for young readers, and more.

••• "5 Rounds with Knockout Games" at the Reading Date. Lucy shares the many reasons to add this book to your TBR pile.

Also, next month we'll be discussing LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley. Feel free to read along with us!

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.


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The Bitter Kingdom
Wild Awake
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Mind Games
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Every Day
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