I saw this book in the University of ILlinois bookstore today and it reminded me that I forgot to post my book review from *GULP** 2019! Ugh…such a slowpoke! BUT, in light of it being the Olympics and some young readers might get inspired by watching the diving…maybe that makes this a great time to post this review!!

In some ways Courage, by Barbara Binns (Harper Publishing), is a “standard” middle-grade novel about a boy (T’Shawn) on the cusp of becoming a teenager. T’shawn has a best friend (Dontae), a little sister (Rochelle), a crush (Carmela) and a newly discovered passion — in this case for diving.

But in other ways Courage is anything but typical because it tells this story in the setting of South Chicago’s mostly black community. Those of us who don’t live in South Chicago know it as a place of deep poverty and violence. But Binns’s story reminds us that it is home for many people; people who strive to improve their lives and push back against violence whether perpetrated by residents or by police. It is a place where young boys have best friends, crushes, little sisters and sudden passions.

Before the story begins, T’Shawn’s family has faced numerous challenges. First, T’Shawn’s father gets cancer and his mom discovers she’s pregnant. Then T’Shawn’s father dies and the baby, Rochelle, is born. As a result of the costs of both death and birth, the family gets evicted and has to live in a shelter. The final disaster? T’Shawn’s big brother, Lamont joins a gang, threatens T’Shawn, tries to rob a store and ends up in jail.

Eventually the family gets back on their feet. T’Shawn’s mom now has a job, they have an apartment and life is stable. The story opens with T’Shawn and Dontae at the community college pool, where Dontae’s mom works the concession stand. Wanting to impress his crush, Carmela, T’Shawn takes a turn on the diving board. Although the dive is a disaster the feeling of flying is all he can think of.  When Carmela suggests he join the swimming/diving team he is determined to do so. His birthday is coming up. Perhaps his mom can swing the membership costs as his birthday gift.

But then Mom drops a bombshell: Lamont is being released from prison early and coming to live with them. What’s worse, he’ll share T’Shawn’s room. Mom gets a set of bunkbeds. T’Shawn hates bunkbeds.

Plus, T’Shawn is terrified. Although before they ended up in the shelter, T’Shawn worshipped and trusted Lamont, T’Shawn is not convinced Lamont has lost his love of the gang life. Lamont disappears at night and T’Shawn is convinced he is up to trouble. Fresh graffiti appears in the neighborhood and many people blame Lamont. What’s more, little sister Rochelle loves her “new” brother, which makes T’Shawn jealous and resentful.

Meanwhile, T’Shawn would do anything to dive, but his mom can’t afford the fees. When a scholarship mysteriously appears and T’Shawn joins the team, he discovers that most of the team is unfriendly and stuck up. The diving coach really picks on him. But T’Shawn stands his ground and keeps working hard even though he sometimes feels like quitting.

In the end (spoiler alert) we learn that Lamont has redeemed himself, not only by working at night (explaining the disappearances), but by using that money to pay T’Shawn’s training fees. T’Shawn’s love of diving grows, but he also realizes that as much as he loves diving he doesn’t love the affluent, mostly white team he is on and switches instead to the Chicago Parks Department team where he feels like he fits in better.

We see perseverance, optimism, friendship and love all wrapped up in this single story. Binns draws readers in with likable characters and an interesting plot and then helps them understand what it might be like to live in a community like T’Shawn’s. Courage portrays the humanity of the residents of the South side in a way that is often lost in newspaper headlines.

A final note: Yesterday (April 27) was national independent bookstore day. If you’d like to support your local indie bookseller, why not check out Hartfield Book Co., located on the main square in Monticello. They are open every day except Monday.