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Coe Booth has been praised by booksellers and librarians alike for her gritty and painfully honest portrayal of teens living on the edge. She has also amassed a devoted following of teen readers who claim she is one of few authors out there who actually tells it like it is.

In her first book, TYRELL --- winner of the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize for Best Young Adult Novel --- she brings up some fairly hefty issues (homelessness, drug addiction, poverty) and addresses them head-on with great aplomb and grace. Her characters, especially Tyrell, were truly inspirational to watch --- fully flawed yet unabashedly ardent in their struggle to figure out who they were, how they wanted to behave and where they wanted to go. Therefore, it is no surprise that her second novel, KENDRA, is a bonafide tour-de-force --- and for many of the same reasons.

Kendra is a 14-year-old girl from the Bronx who, like Tyrell, is wise beyond her years. Well, sort of. Perhaps the right word is “mature,” but not necessarily emotionally. Like her mother was, she is thin, pretty and sexually curious. But unlike her mother, she isn’t about to have a baby at 14 --- especially if her grandmother has anything to say about it. The basic routine of going to school, hanging out with her best friend, Adonna (who also happens to be her aunt; Kendra’s father is Adonna’s brother), getting good grades and spending most nights at home (she HAS lived with her grandmother ever since she could remember) has worked thus far. So why wouldn’t it continue to work in the future?

As Kendra soon becomes aware, though, life isn’t that easy, nor is it that squeaky clean. The older she gets, the more she becomes interested in things outside her grandmother’s home, like designing sets for the play after school, going shopping with Adonna, and boys --- especially Nashawn, the cute bad boy whose locker is next to hers at school. Normally, a harmless crush on a boy wouldn’t be a problem…unless he’s the same boy Adonna is gunning for.

So when Kendra and Nashawn begin hooking up (as in, everything but full-blown sex), Kendra feels more confused --- and more alone --- than she ever has before. Should she tell Adonna what’s going on, even though she knows how Adonna feels about him? What about Darnell, the harmless and hopelessly nice boy who wants to ask Kendra out? Is it strange that Nashawn and she are so close after hours while he flirts shamelessly with Adonna when they’re at school? And most importantly: Where is her mother when Kendra needs her?

Of course, the last question is the most significant and pressing one, and Booth handles Kendra’s journey of discovery perfectly. The pain Kendra endures because of her mother’s absence is palpable on every page. As any neglected daughter would, she goes through every coping stage --- from intense anger, to sorrow, to self-loathing, to deep need, to flagrant rebellion, and back to anger again --- and at no point do we as readers feel as though any of her emotions are forced, trite, over-the-top or subdued.

But perhaps what makes KENDRA so remarkable is Booth’s decision to show not just Kendra’s point of view (the side young readers would most be able to relate to and identify with), but her mother’s and grandmother’s perspectives as well. Both adults were saddled with responsibilities they either didn’t want (in Kendra’s mother’s case, she was too young to be a capable mother at 14) or had already dealt with (as in the case of Kendra’s grandmother, who raised Kendra while Kendra’s mother was away at college, then grad school), and neither of them are happy about the sacrifices they had (and continue to have) to make. Kendra’s grandmother, a grown woman, can’t even get her own budding relationship off the ground because Kendra’s mother refuses to ask her daughter to live with her now that she’s out of school.

KENDRA is a novel full of fiery, garrulous, needy women, and perhaps the one character we don’t see enough of is Kendra’s father. But despite this tiny vacuum, readers (and parents) will be thankful that he is not used as a scapegoat. Although he still lives at home with his mom and makes minimum wage at a snack cart on the street, it’s still apparent how much he cares for Kendra, and Booth steers clear of portraying him as a stereotypical deadbeat dad from the Bronx.

Yes, KENDRA is full of controversy --- sex, teen pregnancy, abortion --- but in Booth’s capable hands, these topics are handled responsibly (condoms are promoted; promiscuity is frowned upon). Teens, too, will recognize their own thoughts, feelings and modes of speaking and behavior (whether good or bad) in Kendra, Adonna and Nashawn. Excellent fodder for more liberal-minded classrooms; even better for lunchroom table conversations.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on October 1, 2008

by Coe Booth

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Push
  • ISBN-10: 0439925371
  • ISBN-13: 9780439925372