At the beginning of Ibi Zoboi's novel American Street, which is a finalist for a National Book Award, is a description of the glass that separates the protagonist and her mother, who has been detained by immigration. In it, she wishes she could break through and destroy the boundary that divides the two. Serving as a metaphor, the glass shows how delicate the world of an immigrant who is desperately trying to achieve the "American dream" while still holding on to their heritage can be.
Fabiola Toussaint is caught between multiple worlds when at 16 she has to abandon her mother to go live with extended family in Detroit. Although Fabiola was born in America, she has spent her whole life growing up in Haiti and thus is unprepared for and unaccustomed to the American way of life.
It's easy to mistreat American Street as simply another YA novel, and truthfully the obvious plot points do detract from an otherwise remarkable page-turner. There's the description of trying to fit in at a new school, a potentially clichéd romance, and feeling disconnected from society as a whole. While it does follow the tropes of many novels directly marketed to teenagers, it's doubtful that those are the reasons it is a finalist for the National Book Award, nor why it is likely to become omnipresent in public schools.
When reading American Street, it struck me how easily this book would slide into an already well-established high school curriculum. It could be taught as a companion piece to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men or as a standalone for a historical discussion of immigration. The flexibility of the book is what makes it so strong, in that it addresses a spectacular amount of heartbreaking themes.
For the topic of immigration, unlike many other books on the subject, Fabiola is a teenager in modern times. This immediately gives a depth and a potency to her perspective, which will resonate with youth and adults alike. As she struggles to find her home between the two worlds, naturally, teenagers reading it would relate to Fabiola and the text would challenge American teens' preconceived ideas of their country.
Set in Detroit, the descriptions are certainly not favorable. Even though she was imagining the great city to vibrate with hope and passion, what she experiences is a lot more heartbreaking and truthful. "There isn't even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all those empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere," Fabiola describes. "Every bit of laughter, every joyous moment, is swallowed up by a deep, deep sadness."
While many American readers have become accustomed to thinking of Haiti and other such countries by their "third-world" description, for Fabiola, Detroit is more harsh and indicative of how America has failed a huge swath of people; an additional challenge in her struggle to acclimate to her new home.
Between the brutally honest discussions of drugs, abuse, and sex, Fabiola begins to enter a world of spiritualism to guide her. This seems befitting of her own monomyth, as a spiritual guide is necessary as the hero makes their way through the journey. Additionally, the spiritualism provides a touch of magical realism and allows the reader, as well as Fabiola, to escape into her other world.
Zoboi is a tactful writer who is able to, with sensitivity and breadth, give an emotional portrayal of a young immigrant struggling to make sense of her new world. While a different writer might have fallen into the trap of making America be the ideal, Zoboi manages to describe the difficulty of living in the US while still making authentic and dynamic characters who have grown up there. The reader will feel for Fabiola, as it challenges their beliefs on the "American dream" and what that looks like through a modern lens.