Book Review: Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles – A Phenomenal Contemporary Middle-Grade about Activism, Gentrification, and Growing Up

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles. A badge at the bottom-left that says, 'Reviewed by CW, The Quiet Pond'. In the centre is a image of Xiaolong, the pink axolotl wearing a flower hat, waving at you.
Blurb:

Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, royal-blue Supreme tee—Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with the crew (his best friends since little kid days) and playing video games–is what Wes wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks– the neighborhood Wes has lived in his whole life, everything changes. The grown-ups are supposed to have all the answers. But all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known without a fight. He’s always been good at puzzles and he knows there must be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it…before it’s too late?

Exploring community, justice, family and friendship with a irresistibly deft and relatable touch, Take Back the Block introduces Wes, a 6th grader readers will fall in love with and asks what it means to belong, to a place and a movement, and to fight for a cause you believe in. 

I was provided an eARC by the publisher via the author in exchange for an honest review.

If people ask me, why do you read middle-grade books? I think, from now on, instead of giving people a long-winded answer about how I think middle-grade stories offer a window and mirror to the realities and issues that young people face today, I’ll just wordlessly hand them a copy of Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles instead. That’s right: Take Back the Block is an example of why children’s literature is such an exciting space right now – it’s timely, brilliantly told, and just so undeniably good.

Take Back the Block follows Wes, a Black boy who would rather hang out with his friends and play video games than follow his mum to yet another protest. But when a real estate developer makes a compelling offer to buy the houses in Wes’s neighbourhood to build fancy apartments and shops, Wes realises that he has the power to stand up for what he believes in and protect what is important to him.

There are so many things that I loved about Take Back the Block, but I believe the reason why this book is just so unquestionably good was how this book was just so well balanced. Though I want to say that Take Back the Block is about gentrification and activism, it’s also a story about growing up, grappling with change, family life, how friendships change, and just trying to get through middle school while completing a huge class project. Everything in this book plays a meaningful role in the story but also everything is also equally important in Wes’s life. Readers will feel pulled into Wes’s world, which makes the story even more engaging, interesting, and so relatable.

There were three things that I loved about Take Back the Block. Let’s talk about the first one: Wes himself. I try to avoid hyperbole when I write reviews, but I genuinely think that Wes is one of the coolest main characters I’ve read, ever. I utterly adore Wes; I loved that he’s a kid who is out there just trying to do his best and do right by people and his community, I loved that he was kind, a little shy and prides in having great style! But above all, I just love that Wes gets to be a kid; he gets to learn and not understand things immediately but he’s willing to think about it, he gets to reflect on change and how that affects him, he gets to be annoyed at his friends and family, and he gets to just… be an imperfect yet earnest young person going through life – and it was just so endearing and fun to read.

The second thing that I loved was the story’s amazing, empathetic, yet accessible exploration of gentrification. I didn’t know what gentrification meant until I was well into adulthood; it’s a complicated and fraught topic with a lot of ‘layers’. If a young person asked me what ‘gentrification’ meant, I would genuinely struggle to explain it – but, somehow, Giles does it in Take Back the Block. I felt that the book did an amazing job at exploring the impact and implications of gentrification, offering a balanced perspective and allowing readers to decide and reflect themselves. Giles did a truly outstanding job at explaining and exploring gentrification in a way that readers of all ages can understand – and I think that makes the book such a treasure.

I appreciated that the story reflected on the different ways that gentrification is perceived and understood – why it may actually be appealing to certain families and why they do end up moving away – and that the story challenges the perceived benefits in a gentle and thoughtful way. Something that the story raises is how ‘gentrification is the new segregation’; prior to reading this, I hadn’t thought of gentrification that way before, but the way that the story handles and examines this idea was insightful and thought-provoking. Indeed, I thought that Take Back the Block was not only a fun and good read, but I can also guarantee that, after reading this book, readers will be thoughtful about gentrification and, in extension, institutional modern racism and its wider impacts on society (especially on people who are poor).

The third thing, which I think brings everything I love about this book together, is that Take Back the Block is ultimately an empowering story about activism. Across the story, we see many different forms of activism; we see the loud and present activism like protesting in the community, and we also see how activism is also a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work, such as planning, strategising, learning, and working with others. Moreover, I loved that this book sends a clear message that young people absolutely have the power to be activists and it’s never too early (or late!) to get interested and involved in helping the community. Wes, in particular, grows across the book and I loved that he gets creative with his own activism. Frankly, I think Take Back the Block is the sort of story that will inspire the activists and leaders of tomorrow.

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A phenomenal, empowering, and timely story, Take Back the Block is one of my favourite reads of 2020. This is a book that I’ll be recommending to everyone and anyone – for its fantastic and rounded portrayal of a young boy’s life who grows into his activism that feels so genuine, real, and relatable – and I genuinely cannot wait for all of you to pick this up next month.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A Black boy becomes an unexpected activist when his neighbourhood becomes at risk of gentrification.

Perfect for: Readers who love contemporary middle-grade; readers who want to learn more about gentrification; readers who love holistic stories that also explore ‘middle-grade’ topics and themes

Think twice if: I can’t think of a reason why anyone wouldn’t like this – it’s just appealing to everyone!

Genre: middle-grade contemporary

Trigger/content warning: police brutality (described and challenged)

Goodreads | Blackwells | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | My short review on Goodreads

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