Marigold Johnson can’t wait to attend a special program at her family’s business, Flexx Unlimited, for teens who love fashion. But Mari quickly realizes that she’s out of place compared to the three other trainees–and one girl, Kara, seems to hate her on sight.
As tension builds and the stakes at the program get higher, Mari uncovers exactly why Kara’s been so spiteful. She also discovers some hard truths about herself and her family.
Paula Chase explores complex themes centering on friendships, family, and what it means to conform to fit in. Keeping It Real is also a powerful exploration of what happens when parents pick and choose what they shield their children from. Timely and memorable, Paula Chase’s character-driven story touches on creativity, art, fashion, and music. A great choice for the upper middle grade audience.
I received a digital advanced readers copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced story about hip hop fashion and friendship as well as a story that explores the complex intersections of Black identity and class, then Keeping It Real by Paula Chase is a great choice, and will certainly engage young readers and will resonate with Black readers.
Today, let’s talk about my top five reasons why you should pick up this brilliant contemporary. Keeping It Real has middle grade/young adult crossover appeal, but this book is definitely going to be a conversation starter – and not a story to be missed!
1. A story about fashion, creativity, and passion
For young readers who love fashion, especially hip hop fashion, then Keeping It Real is for you! Mari, the main character of Keeping It Real, is a Black girl whose parents own a successful hip hop fashion business called Flexx Unlimited. When Mari joins her parents’ special program called Style High for young teenagers interested in fashion for the summer, she is thrown into the world of fashion, and even gets the opportunity to style an up-and-coming musical artist. Creativity and passion for art is celebrated in this story.
2. A nuanced examination of how Black identity can intersect with socioeconomic diversity and privilege
What I liked about Keeping It Real, though, was that it has an incredible nuanced exploration into how being Black doesn’t mean one singular thing – particularly when they have different upbringings, family situations, and of different social classes. Mari’s parents are wealthy, which affords Mari a certain degree of privilege, and this is contrasted in her conversations with Justice, who is more cognizant of the oppression and privilege that Black people experience. In other words, Keeping It Real is a great portrayal of how, even though sometimes we may share the same identity as someone, different circumstances may shape the way that we perceive the world – and also the privileges we may have and what we may be shielded from.
3. It’s also about ‘fitting in’ and feeling out of place
Keeping It Real is also about fitting in and that uncomfortable feeling of not feeling like we belong. Mari goes to a private school called Flowered Arms, or Flo-A; a school with mostly white kids with only a few Black kids. Mari doesn’t quite fit into Flo-A, and that’s why she connects instantly with her friend Justice, another Black young teen who attends because he’s on scholarship.
The story adds another layer of ‘fitting in’ when Mari joins the special program with three other teenagers – Justice and two other Black girls, one who seems to dislike her instantly. Mari struggles to fit into the group for several reasons – because she comes from a wealthy and privileged family, unlike her peers, and her parents own the company that the teens are interning in, thus bringing in a power dynamic – and the emotions that she feels are relatable, honest, and so vulnerable.
4. A great portrayal of complicated friendships
Keeping It Real explores the dynamics of the four young teenagers in Style High and I enjoyed how nuanced the relationships were. Justice and Mari’s friendship in particular was brilliantly explored; sometimes friendships can be complicated by things that we may not necessarily control, particularly when Mari takes her privilege for granted and doesn’t understand Justice’s frustrations. Both Justice and Mari’s feelings and positions are authentic and relatable – there wasn’t a character I disliked because I could understood where they were coming from.
5. Has a shocking twist that will surprise readers – and explores the impact of the choices people make
At the final quarter of the story, Keeping It Real has a twist that genuinely surprised me – but it also neatly brought the pieces of the puzzle together. Without spoiling what the twist is, the twist is a powerful exploration of how the choices and mistakes that people make can have huge rippling effects that can affect and shape a person’s life. More, it doesn’t leave it as just that; from the twist, the story also shows that it’s possible to make amends and that healing can begin if we give people a chance and empathise.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A young Black girl attends her family business’s special program for young teens who love fashion – and discovers a shocking secret and truth about her family.
Perfect for: younger readers who enjoy stories about fashion; readers who enjoy complicated and flawed characters; readers looking for something fast-paced
Think twice if: you don’t enjoy reading stories with ‘younger’ voices
Genre: middle-grade contemporary