Ethan, Suspended by Pamela Ehrenberg (2007, 336 pp, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).
Ethan is Suspended. From school, from his friends, from his family, from his home town outside Philadelphia. Life as he knows it suddenly comes to an end when he's sent to his grandparents' house in an inner city neighborhood of Washington DC, where they are the only Jewish family left. He thinks it's just for the week of his school suspension, but then his mother just happens to mention while talking to him on the phone that he's there indefinitely.
Now he's the only white Jewish kid at a black/Hispanic junior high. The other kids laugh at him for expecting there to be soap in the soap dispenser, which is the least of his problems. He walks a fine line between getting beaten up, or worse, and making friends. His grandparents mean well, but they eat dinner ridiculously early. They make him take lunches packed in plastic grocery bags. There is no junk food. No computer. How can he stand it? His mother says she cares, but why can't she communicate with him? And his Dad, who just split up with his mom, isn't in touch at all. And there's the disturbing fact that he got suspended from his old school and lost his friends (for reasons discussed in the book). He finds a niche in the school jazz band, makes friends, and at last agrees to watch Jeopardy with his grandparents. When his mom finally says, "You're coming home. I've fixed your play station," he's not sure he wants to exchange the old sagging bed of his dead uncle for his firm mattress at "home."
Within this story line, the author discusses race and class, in the Washington DC of the 1960s as well as in the present. But the book is not overbearingly Message Laden. Ethan, in whose voice the story is told, is conscious of race but not obsessed with it, and the characters as seen through his eyes are people with stories he tries to understand because he cares about them. They are not placemats of varying skin tones and ethnicities. Ethan can afford not to think that race matters, because it doesn't, to him--segregation is over, it's a non-issue. But--"You don't need no laws to keep people out if people can't afford to go there," says Diego.
This book has some great characters, thought-provoking situations, and a glimpse inside an "inner city school" that people like me, living in predominately white suburbs, comfortably reading books, should keep in mind. (ack! now I sound preachy, which the book avoided, but I do think it's true and also, now that I am being personal, I do not not not want my boys to ever have play stations. Nor do they have firm mattresses, but that is their fault because they will jump).
p.s. I read this book because it was nominated in the YA category for the Cybils, but it is not particularly YA-ish. There is one chaste kiss, and a bit of day-dreaming, but nothing to bring a blush to a young girl's/boy's cheek.
p.p.s Reading this book makes me wonder if Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, will ever write a memoir about her experiences at a D.C. public school back in the 1970s...I vaguely feel she had a horrible time, but I could be wrong.