National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi Visits Bluebird Library

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National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi Visits Bluebird Library

Photo Courtesy of Lauren Magnuson

Photo Courtesy of Lauren Magnuson

Photo Courtesy of Lauren Magnuson

Luvia Thomas, Junior

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In early April, 50 Kenwood readers attended an author event for National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi. She came to Kenwood High School to share a little bit about her life and her book American Street.

Kenwood Librarian Lauren Magnuson was excited to offer this opportunity to Kenwood’s students on April 11. “I was thrilled when I got the email from Library Media Programs asking if Bluebird Library would like to have Ibi Zoboi visit and speak to our students. I didn’t have to think twice before I said, ‘Yes!’” she said.

American Street is about a girl named Fabiola Toussaint who was born in America but grew up in Haiti shortly after. After leaving their home in Port-au-Prince, Fabiola’s mother gets detained at Kennedy airport which forces Fabiola to travel to Detroit alone and learn to navigate life with her Americanized cousins by herself. As time goes on and Fabiola becomes acclimated to her new life, she is given the opportunity to see her mother again but at the cost of her cousin’s trust and being put in a dangerous situation.

To start off the presentation, Zoboi wanted to get to know what makes us stand out from everyone in the room by playing a little game. The premise was simple: we were to raise our hands (if we were comfortable) if what she asked related to us. Asking questions like what class we were in, if any of our family members made a living off of art like she does… and then got down to questions relating to the book.

She began to ask questions about immigration, such as if our parents, grandparents, or even great grandparents were immigrants and, if so from where. She did this to see just how many people share this common factor in their lives. Like her character Fabiola, she herself immigrated to America from Port-Au prince, Haiti, and for similar reasons.

Both the author,  Zoboi, and Fabiola’s story begins before they were born with a dictator know as “Baby Doc.”  Zoboi’s parents worked at a radio station and were highly pressured to promote propaganda painting the country in a good light. Considering the danger of this job and being unable to obtain a teaching job at an all-girls school in Haiti due to her marital status, Zoboi’s mother fled for America in hopes for a better life. The parallels between the book and her life experience become more prevalent during this time as well.

In the book, Fabiola experiences cultural differences almost as soon as she is in Detroit. In Haiti if a guest arrived there would be a celebration or a special meal but in America all three of her cousins go off to do what they normally do. She also learns of the differences in how teens her age act and discovers the differences between school systems. Just like the book, Zoboi also explains some of the trials she went through when she came to America. For example, when she was little and started school in America, her mother would dress her up like  “a cupcake” in frilly dresses, which wasn’t what other children were wearing and showed a clear divide between them.

“I hated it,” says Zoboi, “They wanted to beat me up.”

Zoboi later explains how as time went by she assimilated and became more Americanized, which, if you read the book, is just like the cousins. They went from being totally different to almost going undetected as someone different.

At one point, Zoboi said, “She had become so Americanized that her friends didn’t know she was Haitian.” From these things alone, you can tell how her life shaped her book, but she does this for a reason. She wanted to make some parts of the book so specific you can’t help but relate, which was the message she wanted to convey. She wants the readers to empathize with Fabiola and to truly envision struggles other people go through. With that as her final claim, she read a section of her book to us and handed the 50 attendees a free book provided by BCPS Library Media Programs which she signed and personalized for each student.

This event, provided for Kenwood students by BCPS and Baltimore County Public Library’s BC Reads Event, was an amazing opportunity to gain the author’s perspective and to learn just how the book came about. The writing is spot on, and in my opinion, you can fully imagine being in the mind of these characters. Each one has their own little charm and the narrative switches from Fabiola’s to another character’s so you can fully understand their reasoning for acting the ways they do allowing the reader to decide both the reliability of the narrator and the moral justification of the characters’ actions.

I highly recommend everyone to read American Street. It is so unfiltered and almost too real at times, but that’s what makes it special. You cannot help but relate to the characters in the book. No matter your preference, American Street will surely keep up on the edge of your seat.