Written by Meg Medina
Published by Candlewick Press on March 8th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult, General
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Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.
BURN BABY BURN Through the Summer of ’77
- What’s it about? Meg Medina’s young-adult novel Burn Baby Burn ramps up the anxiety of being on the edge of adulthood with a strong sense of time and place.
Nora Lopez is about to graduate high school, and all she wants is to save up some money and be on her own and out of Queens. Her father is long gone, her younger brother is uncontrollable, and her mother relies on her too much. She shares feelings, plans, and love of disco music with her best friend, Kathleen, but doesn’t talk about her troubles at home. And Nora hasn’t told her mother about Pablo, the cute college guy from the deli where she works, or about her acceptance to a technical college in Brooklyn. New York City is struggling financially and on edge over a serial killer who is targeting young couples. It’s already a long hot summer when a three-day-long blackout literally sets the city on fire.
- Why did I read it? My family moved to Florida when I was twelve years old. The summer of 1977 was our first one outside the (New York/New Jersey/Connecticut) Tri-State Area, but my parents still bought the New York Daily News every day at the post office. I read the stories about Son of Sam, the blackout and the looting and destruction that followed it. The New York City I remember from my childhood was grubby, gritty and rough. The setting was what drew me to Burn Baby Burn–that, and being unable to resist singing out “disco inferno!” whenever I saw the title.
Why I Can’t Say “I Don’t Read YA”
- What worked for me? I am a sucker for a particular type of YA fiction. Specifically, I’m drawn to grounded, theme-centered, plot-heavy YA that takes me back to what I read during my own young-adult years. Burn Baby Burn checked all those boxes for me, with the bonus factor of a story set when I actually was YA. That said, I have to note that the writing in a lot of current YA is better than it was in my day.
Meg Medina does a terrific job with setting in this novel, down to the specifics of Nora’s apartment building and neighborhood. She captures the atmospheric tension of New York’s “Summer of Sam” and the bleakness after the blackout. The relationships feel lived-in, even to the extent of the details of her family life that Nora doesn’t share with Kathleen. Teens are in a stage of life where their problems feel specifically theirs, incomprehensible to anyone else–even a best friend–and the prospect of sharing them may inspire more fear of judgment and rejection than hope for understanding and support.
- What didn’t I like? I understand that most first-person narratives by their nature provide less insight into the other characters in a story, but I especially notice that limited viewpoint when I read young-adult fiction. This doesn’t bother me, exactly–it’s actually age-appropriate for most YA characters–but sometimes it does make for a less satisfying read.
- Recommended? Definitely, even if you “don’t read YA.” Burn Baby Burn has a vivid, very specific sense of time and place, but it doesn’t feel nostalgic. (Maybe that’s because its intended audience wasn’t around in 1977.) It pains me to call a novel set in 1977 “historical,” but those of us who remember that historical period are this novel’s unintended audience. Burn Baby Burn would be a good companion read to one of my 2016 Books of the Year, Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. Woodson’s novel isn’t YA, but both stories vividly depict adolescent girls during the 1970s in what amounts to another New York City.
I stare ahead at the gaping shadows we’ll have to walk through and wish we had just waited for the next bus. I think of the graffiti and the broken bottles in there, the smell of urine that sometimes chokes you when you walk by. Suddenly I think of the murder in Forest Hills.
“We just need to get past the underpass. We’ll get close and run,” I whisper as Kathleen and I link arms.
I practice our sprint in my mind the way athletes do. We’ll race through that patch and break through to the other side, victorious. It will take only a few seconds, no more.
But as we get closer, my feet slow down, and it feels as though I’m trying to walk through molasses. Kathleen slows down, too. Each tree trunk we pass makes us skittish. Anyone could be hiding behind there in the shadows.
I hear a man’s voice in my head.
Click, click, click, like a gun cocking over and over.
It’s just our boots, I tell myself, closing my eyes. Move faster.
But behind my eyelids, an ugly picture waits. Kathleen’s pretty white coat is soaked with blood as she lies on the ground.
“I don’t want to,” Kathleen whispers suddenly. “Let’s go back. We can call my mom from a pay phone. She’ll be pissed, but she’ll get us.”
I pause, unsure. Northern Boulevard seems so far behind us, and the shops are all closed and dark. We’re already at the trestle. We’ll only have to run twenty, maybe thirty steps. We’re practically adults, aren’t we? Nearly eighteen, as Kathleen always says. Not scared little girls.
“We’re almost there,” I say stubbornly. “We’re just psyched out from the stupid movie.”
And with that, I pull us into the darkness.