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ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO by Kelly J. Baptist


by Kelly J. Baptist

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-593-12136-8
Publisher: Crown

Grinding privation itself is the main character as much as it is the mise-en-scène for the protagonist of Baptist’s debut novel.

Each chapter is a calendar-date vignette of hardship for the eponymous character, a young Black boy living with his 4-year-old sister and their mother, who experiences depression-driven alcoholism. They share a smoke-smelling hotel room, having lost their apartment because Isaiah’s mother couldn’t afford the rent in their working-class neighborhood. Each date details the insults and injuries financial difficulty heaps on poetry-loving Isaiah, from worries over housing insecurity and his family’s visits to the food pantry to the socio-economically insensitive writing prompts the teacher assigns (“My world is a good and happy place”) and Isaiah’s suspension for justifiably lashing out at a tormentor. What steadies Isaiah through this turmoil is his candy-profiteering best friend and the notebook Isaiah’s late father left, in which Isaiah is cast as a superhero who derives his power from bowls of beans and rice. But will they be enough? Expanding the tale from her We Need Diverse Books short story contest winner, “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” Baptist presents the direness of abject poverty with exquisite empathy. She provides Isaiah with a supportive community that helps as his family’s situation fluctuates, giving readers who also experience housing insecurity hope but no promises. She doesn’t, however, give them much actual plot to carry them along.

Snapshots of a tough childhood.

(Fiction. 11-13)