What Happens When an African-American Girl From Oregon Discovers Harlem?

The New York City village of Harlem has changed a lot since I lived there, when a prominent African-American real estate agent I knew claimed she’d move there only when she could buy a caffé macchiato at 6 in the morning. That time has long since arrived — but it’s still Harlem World. If you stand on a busy corner long enough, you’re sure to hear an interesting story, or soon have one of your own to tell.

Amara Baker, the 11-year-old African-American protagonist of Renée Watson’s SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS (Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), is searching for stories that belong to her, though at first she doesn’t quite realize their importance in her young life. Her father has roots in Harlem, but Amara was born and raised in a much different neighborhood: Beaverton, Ore., a suburb of Portland. She and her friends share typical upper-middle-class suburban existences. She’s a self-proclaimed sneakerhead, the type who wouldn’t think twice about camping out on the sidewalk in front of a shoe store for hours (or even days) on the eve of the release of a new style, but fortunately for her, her father is a marketing executive at the nearby Nike headquarters. Her mother tries to persuade Amara to wear dresses. Fans of gender-neutral clothing will get a kick out of their fashion tug-of-war.

Amara’s also a big reader, curious and precocious, which is how, as her 12th birthday draws near, she successfully pressures her parents into allowing her to travel with Dad on his business trip to New York during N.B.A. All-Star Weekend — something like the Super Bowl for sneakerheads. Amara is ecstatic. She’s never visited her relatives in Harlem and has wondered why she hadn’t been allowed.

What complicates Amara’s trip are first, that this cross-country journey means Amara and her father must leave her eight-months-pregnant mother in Oregon, and second, that Amara intends to interview her Harlem family about their personal histories for a school project. Third, her father and his dad, Grandpa Earl, fell out 12 years ago and now barely speak.

Watson, the author of several books for young readers including the Newbery Honor-winning “Piecing Me Together,” neatly captures a young person’s growing enlightenment as she experiences one of the world’s most culturally rich neighborhoods. With her two comical Harlem-grown tween cousins, Amara explores New York with both success and calamity. There is culture shock. Scenes in which she tours the blocks where her father grew up are potent, especially when she learns of the influence of African-American historical figures upon Harlem.

At one point, while Amara admires “Swing Low,” the bronze Harriet Tubman Memorial at 122nd Street, St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, she starts to register why there is nowhere else quite like this place. “No place else that constantly reminds us that we are important,” she ponders. “That we come from a people that sacrificed and fought and protested for us to be able to walk these streets free.”

Her mind opens.

Despite Harlem’s many transformations, when you walk around the neighborhood today, it can still feel like one big contentious family. The importance of this socio-historical continuity, those ties between our communities and within our families, are woven throughout “Some Places More Than Others.”

Amara’s experiences help her see her own hometown in a different light, as well as her privilege compared with her cousins. What she learns about the wounded relationship between her father and grandfather influences her ideas on how to be a good sister to her future sibling.

To read Watson’s book is to dip into the private history of one particular African-American family. But really, these very relatable stories could be the high points and lows of any family struggling through today’s world. After the quietly powerful finale, you get the impression that Amara will one day become a thoughtful teller of many people’s stories, much like this book’s talented author.

David Barclay Moore’s debut, “The Stars Beneath Our Feet,” won a Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Author Award.

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