I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
This book is especially relevant given what has been going on in the US and around the world these past couple months. I first heard about it during an online writers’ conference and was bummed that my library didn’t have a paperback copy. Lucky for me, they had the ebook. This was a quick read—perfect for squeezing between other duties.
“Over the course of one night, two girls with two very different backgrounds must rely on each other to get through the violent race riot that has enveloped their city.
Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.
When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.
They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.”
Lena has a big mouth and a bigger attitude. She’s fashionable, opinionated, and not even a riot can stand between her and her goals. Campbell is quiet, grieving the loss of her old life—friends, track team, living with her mom—and struggling to adapt to her new reality.
The story focuses almost exclusively on these two characters, which poses the risk of making them archetypes for their respective races: the sassy and ambitious African American girl and the mousy and naïve Caucasian one. The authors avoid falling into typecasting by giving each character at least one non-stereotypical characteristic: Campbell is not rich, and Lena is not as well-versed in “the hood” as Campbell assumes.
I agree with the authors’ choice to focus on Lena and Campbell because the strength of the novel is their contrasting perspectives. For example, Campbell views the police as saviors, while Lena knows they will inflame already raging tempers. Contrasts like these make the story compelling.
The book alternates between Lena and Campbell’s perspective as the riot begins and they try to navigate their way to safety. They each have separate goals. Lena wants nothing more than to reach her boyfriend, and Campbell needs to check on her father’s hardware store. They stick together despite their differences, even though every step they take brings them further into trouble.
When describing the riot, the authors did an excellent job keeping the focus on the individual experiences of their protagonists. When I read The Hate U Give, I got lost in the chaos at the end. While Johnson and Segal describe the craziness of the riot, they keep the focus on Campbell and Lena’s experience of it, and only mention the parts that hinder their progress.
Structurally, the book is short and simple. I read it in about three hours (and I read slower than a teenager cleans their room). The plot moves at a good clip, and, again, the chief strength is the contrasting perspectives.
One thing that needed more development was the situation with Lena’s boyfriend. Many other characters expressed a lack of faith in him, and while he does some noble things toward the end, I didn’t feel the authors resolved the subplot. By the end, I couldn’t predict Lena’s next steps in her relationship. Would she stick with her boyfriend and prove to all the haters what a good guy he was, or would she dump him because he isn’t the guy she thought? His actions throughout the book left me with neutral feelings toward him.
While I don’t like the loose end of that subplot, I do appreciate that Lena and Campbell don’t magically become best friends. Both girls change their perspective of the world, but the book doesn’t end with a kumbaya moment.
In keeping with the short length and laser focus of the book, the prose was sparse. The authors included few descriptive details of the characters and often relied on their names (e.g. Big Baby) or dialogue to trigger the readers imagination. I would have liked more; I had trouble keeping Lena’s boyfriend’s and cousin’s friends straight.
This is nitpicky, but I disagree with the authors’ choice to italicize the word ghetto. I think any modern American reader understands what that word means in the context of a race riot. To me, italicizing that word signals a foreign meaning and brings it back to its original context: Nazi Germany. Perhaps not all this book’s readers are also into WWII fiction as I am, but for me, italicizing the word was jarring.
Writing Style Highlight
Now that I’ve nit-picked, I want to highlight something the authors did well: the African American Vernacular English—AAE—in Lena’s dialogue and prose. For those who are unfamiliar, AAE is the dialect reporters refer to when they say Obama slips into “Black Speak.”
If Kimberly Jones isn’t a native speaker of this dialect, then she has certainly studied it. The habitual be, copula deletion, negation concord—it’s all there.
I know I’m falling into an all-out nerd-gush, but so often this dialect is reduced into a sprinkling of “Girl, please,” or butchered into a lawless mess. To see such a robust, grammatically accurate depiction makes my speech therapist’s heart all sorts of happy. Seriously, speech pathology graduate students should study Lena’s chapters. We’d have a lot fewer misdiagnoses.
I haven’t geeked out about a character’s dialogue this much since Thanhha Lai’s “Vietnamese in English.” I can’t overestimate how often authors get AAE wrong. Lena’s perspective was the highlight of the book for me.
I love the cover. I think it succinctly communicates the theme.
This book ought to be required reading, and not just for speech pathology students. It’s short, fast-paced, and thought provoking without being accusatory. The contrast between the girls’ perspectives—including in the writing style—make for an engaging read. Fans of The Hate U Give will love it. To be honest, I liked this one better.
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