Take Back the Block’ raises awareness of gentrification

by | Aug 31, 2021

Author Chrystal D. Giles’s debut middle-grade book, “Take Back the Block,” is full of engaging and entertaining characters, compelling story lines and a vivid setting. It is also the first middle-grade book I’ve seen that has fair housing and the costs of gentrification at its heart. Kudos to Giles for addressing this issue.

Wes Henderson’s mom drags him to protests all the time and he hates it. It’s boring, tiring and embarrassing, especially considering he’s almost always the only kid. He’d rather hang out with his friends, making sure he looks fly, playing video games or assembling puzzles; he’s a typical middle grade kid.

But soon, an event in his own life makes Wes appreciate all those protests his mom has led over the years. Early in the story a big redevelopment company writes to everyone in Wes’s neighborhood of Kensington Oaks, offering to buy their homes at above-market values. They plan to build fancy apartment buildings in the place of Kensington Oaks. This splits the normally friendly and cohesive community into those wanting to take the money and run (like the parents of Wes’s best friend, Brent) and those who want to stay and feel threatened by the proposed destruction of their neighborhood.

The reader, together with Wes, learns the term “gentrification,” which is when a neighborhood gets redeveloped and the cost of living increases so much the original residents, who are typically non-white, are priced out of their old neighborhood and forced to move away. We see it directly with Wes’s friend, Kari, who lived in a nearby apartment building that got bought, torn down and replaced with an upscale building. Kari and his mom had to move to a residential hotel in a bad part of town, and Kari is struggling.

Meanwhile, Wes and his friends are going into sixth grade, and Wes is focused on hanging with his friends, defending his “Best Dressed” title from elementary school and keeping up with homework. The main school character is Mr. Baker, Wes’s social studies teacher. Mr. Baker assigns the class a six-week research project on a topic of change in modern society and its social justice ramifications. Examples included gender equality, climate change, or the First Amendment. Wes can’t think of anything that really matters to him and he’s procrastinating on the assignment.

Wes is also distracted about the redevelopment offer. Even though the adults tell Wes not to worry, he doesn’t see them solving the problem. Plus he sees what happened to his friend, Kari, and he’s afraid it’ll happen to him, too. The reader can see that this issue — which hits so close to home — would be a great topic for Wes’s social studies project, but he doesn’t immediately recognize that what’s happening in his own life is part of a larger pattern.

Upset that the neighbors are fighting amongst themselves, Wes gets the idea to throw a block party, to remind all his neighbors of how great their community is. Several of his friends chip in, but already there are rifts, since some of them don’t see what Wes is so upset about and some have parents who are planning on taking the money. This is a particularly great storytelling technique because it reflects those both readers who might not see what the big deal is, as well as those who understand where Wes is coming from.

Giles does a great job showing the pros and cons of each position. The reader can understand that Brent’s parents, who aren’t as financially stable, would see the windfall as a great way to get a better house and still have money left over. But the author also does a good job showing what would be lost if the neighborhood was bulldozed.

Ultimately, I think that all readers will connect to the feelings of insecurity that the housing redevelopment offer arouse in Wes, even if they also understand Brent’s parents’ perspective. That makes this a powerful story and one I expect will raise the awareness of many young readers.

This book review first ran August 15, 2021 in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette

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