Required Reading for Disenfranchised Freshmen by Kristen R. Lee

Required Reading for Disenfranchised Freshmen by Kristen R. Lee.  Crown, 2022. 9780593309155

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3.5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Realistic fiction

What did you like about the book?  Savannah is headed off to Wooddale University on a full ride, a reward for her years of hard work and her mother’s sacrifice, instead of the HBCU that she’d rather attend. From the start, she feels out of place, despite her mom’s admonition that she belongs there. When a statue of Woodhall’s first black president is “pranked” with blackface makeup, her first semester veers away from the freshman seminars and parties she’d envisioned and into activism. Buoyed by growing friendships with two other Black students, Tasha and Benji, Savannah dives headfirst into an investigation of racial harassment and preferential admissions, both centered on Lucas, the BMOC and a wealthy, White fraternity president. Despite the indifference of the dean and the pressure by White acquaintances to back off, Savannah persists, finding allies and eventually coming clean with her mom about the situation. Savannah was a great character, with a lot of authentic teen angst, as she struggled to balance expectations, disappointments, and even a sense of fear. I liked her loyalty to Tasha and her homegirl B’onca and the three-dimensionality of those relationships, filled with supportive moments spent doing hair and eating lunch with first while coaching the second on her SATs, despite B’onca’s unplanned pregnancy. Savannah’s entrance into college life as an income-insecure, first-generation Black student rang true: the loneliness, the racial tension, and the obliviousness of her White peers. The discussion of HBCU vs. an Ivy, the barriers that keep talented Black students from attending the former, and Savannah’s journey from Wooddale freshman to (by the end of the book) HBCU transfer student were novel and demand attention.

Anything you didn’t like about it? I thought the whole subplot of Lucas getting into Wooddale through the grace of his father’s checkbook was distracting, with the uncovering of check stubs and skulking around looking for sources taking time away from the more interesting questions of Savannah’s experiences and her growing activism. Savannah’s mom mentions casually at the beginning of the book that Wooddale has a Black female president, which I had all but forgotten until the end of the story, when Lora Price magically appears to clean up the mess; I’m sorry, where was she when all this was going down? 

To whom would you recommend this book?  There aren’t a lot of realistic fiction novels for YA readers about college, especially centered on characters of color. That plus the strength of Savannah’s character will make this an appealing read for those interested in fiction with a social justice element. I would recommend this to students who enjoyed The Hate You Give. Another read alike could be American Panda by Gloria Chao, which lacks the activism angle, but also movingly addresses the dissonance between teens and parents around the thorny issue of expectations. College students (including Savannah) do a bit of partying in the book, with casual drinking and cocaine use both making an appearance. 

Who should buy this book? High schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Fiction, realistic if you genre-fy

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 21, 2022

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