Tyrell might be one of my favorite YA novels of all time, so you can imagine my joy when I opened a box from Scholastic that contained Coe Booth‘s second novel, Kendra, coming in October. For those worried about a sophomore slump, I have one word for you: Don’t. Kendra is every bit as raw and thought-provoking as Tyrell was, even though the voices sound very different.
Like Tyrell, Kendra takes place in the Bronx, and the themes of family and loyalty are just as prominent. Kendra lives in the Bronxwood projects with her grandmother. She barely sees her mother Renee, who had Kendra at fourteen. Rather than drop out of school or get married, Renee committed herself wholly to her schoolwork and has just earned a PhD from Princeton. In her pursuit of academic success, however, she has ignored Kendra, who has been raised by her grandmother, Renee’s mother. Now fourteen, Kendra’s sexuality is beginning to emerge but because of her grandmother’s strict, almost puritanical rules about what Kendra can do, who she can talk to, what she can wear, etc., Kendra has some very mixed ideas about sex and love. She likes one boy at school, sort of, but she’s hooking up with another, another who is already seeing Kendra’s closest friend. Kendra’s not stupid. She has goals and ambitions and interests. What she needs is guidance, something she’s not getting from the adults in her life who are supposed to be there for her.
Kendra is not about sex, it’s about sexuality. It’s not about absent mothers, it’s about the importance of family and adult mentors in the life of a teen. It’s not about hooking up, it’s about navigating the many unwritten rules about sex and relationships. Coe Booth has remarkable talent, and this layered, thoughtful novel showcases it perfectly.