Review: Sell-Out by Ebony Joy Wilkins

Title:  Sell-Out

Author:  Ebony Joy Wilkins

Publisher:  Scholastic Press

Sell-Out was one of those books I stumbled across online about a month or so ago, before anything really took off on the blog.  I really liked the idea of a PoC protagonist being the center of a book, especially with all of the cover whitewashing talk going on.  The idea also got me hooked; because it was about her finding herself and her heritage, but not being the usual 'I-Am-A-PoC-And-People-Don't-Like-It' kind of book.  It's a novel about a girl finding herself.  That self just happens to have an African-American living in the Bronx type of heritage.

NaTasha is nearly the only girl of color in her mainly white, middle-class suburban school, but that isn't such a big deal to her.  She has a best friend, Heather, and she does ballet with her.  A weak attempt at trying to be popular.  NaTasha would rather be on the volleyball court anyway, but Heather's such a good friend, and fitting in is something she wants to do.  Everyone in her family - even her grandmother Tilly - comes to her latest recital, where something as simple as trying to fit in turns into an event of pure humiliation for NaTasha.

If there's one thing Tilly's tired of, it's seeing her grand-daughter trying to be something she's not.  She proposes that NaTasha come and live with her for a few weeks in New York - to get a feel for where her family came from before they lived in the squeaky clean suburbs.  NaTasha would also have to help out at the local help center for girls that Tilly volunteers at every day. It isn't the best thing - she'll have to leave behind Heather, the chances of impressing the local hottie, and deal with homesickness - but NaTasha feels like she needs some time away.  Maybe it'll do her good.

What happens to NaTasha is reminiscent of the best stories about someone finding who they are and learning about their roots.  She comes to understand that the girls at the home are different, but strong in their resolve.  She doesn't fit in so well there, either.  How's a girl from the suburbs supposed to compare to a group of girls who have been in and out of juvenile hall, fights, pregnancies, abusive relationships, and bleaching their skin to forget about the names they are called day after day?  NaTasha realizes everyone has their problems - and that spending time at the home with these girls may be more helpful than she thought.  Ebony Joy Wilkins has a wonderful debut novel in Sell-Out that speaks to a tougher generation about their origins and about that equality we all share - whether we like it or not.

Before I started reading, I was worried I wouldn't like NaTasha.  I mean, the spelling alone is a little odd.  Usually weird spellings of names can be weird.  The PoC cliche of being constantly abused because of one's color was also a worry - not that it doesn't happen or that it isn't serious, but that it happens constantly from every single source.  Sell-Out manages to avoid cliches and focus on a story that's modern yet timeless.

NaTasha's journey is different.  She's not made fun of at her school in the suburbs.  They don't torture her or make fun of her skin color, or even show much care for it.  It's all about the underlying differences.  NaTasha and her friend Heather try to make her like everyone else - and the fitting in suffocates who NaTasha really is.  She tries to change her hair, and doesn't do the sport she likes just to be like the popular white girls.  What's interesting is that NaTasha, on some level, knows that what she's doing isn't great from the beginning, which is realistic and perceptive.  Usually we are given a protagonist who is amazingly ignorant of themselves.  NaTasha is smarter than that, shown by her agreement to go and help Tilly.  Her narration shows that perceptiveness, and it made me really respect NaTasha as a character.

Secondary-wise, Sell-Out is populated with a lot of fun figures.  Tilly is the classic God-Loving-Black-Woman-Who-Can-Fry-Anything character, but learning about her past makes her a lot deeper. The local hobo; the cute guy working at the bodega down the block; the beautiful girl troubled with her looks.  In each instance, Wilkins takes a character we feel like we've seen before and gives them a new face; a mature and realistic one.  I was surprised at how emotional I got over them.  They also work well in helping NaTasha find herself, and each one of them is important, which is great.

The strength in NaTasha's character really showed throughout the first-person narrative.  Plotting was handled really well throughout a majority of the book, and the writing style was great for a YA read; quick and to the point.  I liked how each girl at the home had her share of troubles and strengths - each one was a different learning experience for NaTasha, and they all had their motives and reasons for being the way they were.  It was also interesting to see the take on racism within the home - how the girls automatically separated themselves by race during a volleyball game, and how they acted like it was the right thing to do.  Despite how interesting it was, it wasn't the center conflict.  NaTasha's inexperience compared to the hardships the inner-city girls faced was.  It was a refreshing change of pace.  My only issue was the ending - it was cute, but the father-daughter relationship shown between two of the secondary characters was surprising.  I would have liked it to have a bit more solidity to it.  The relationship between a side character and one of NaTasha's crushes was also hinted at but never developed much, and I would have liked more fleshing out with that as well.

Sell-Out is an excellent debut novel that takes a deeper look into finding yourself and finding what your roots really mean.  It's not your cliche PoC-Overcoming-Prejudice story, and is an excellent addition to the YA books of 2010.  Aside from some lack of fleshing out on some parts, I really enjoyed NaTasha's voice, and found her to be a model character for readers of all ages.  Ebony Joy Wilkins did a wonderful job with this book, and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Cover:  Eh.  The pearls have relevance to the story, which is good, but in the story it's a bracelet.  And the light cover and the white just don't work for me. 

Rating:  4.5 stars

Copy:  Received from Jen at Scholastic (Thanks so much, Jen!) 

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Chapter Chicks said...

This book looks okay, I'll have to check it out!

Smart said...

I expected more from this book. I didn't see NaTasha really overcome any problems. I did not like that she went to a center full of troubled/abused girls to learn about "who she really is." Being African American does not always mean one should go to poor-abused-drug areas. There are normal African-American people in normal places. NaTasha was sort of an annoying character who had no personality--not low self-esteem, not high-self-esteem--just nothing.