“Some of these places I am still getting to know, some of these places I have known all my life. All these places made me, are making me.”
Amara Baker lives in Beaverton, Oregon, and all she wants for her twelfth birthday is to go to New York with her father on his business trip and get to know her father’s Harlem-based family. Neither of her parents wants her to go. (Mom thinks she is too young for the big city, and Dad has been estranged from his father for quite some time.) Their reluctance only makes Amara more determined. Thankfully, her Humanities teacher assigns The Suitcase Project, requiring her to document what she learns about her family and where she comes from, and her parents concede.
Through Renée Watson’s beautiful storytelling, we get to journey along with Amara as she learns about the history of her family, the history of Harlem, and how they both intersect. As she builds a relationship with her aunt, cousins, and grandfather, she serves as a bridge between the two generations of Baker men. She comes to love her late grandmother, and she learns how to be just the Baker girl she was meant to be, more “hoop earrings” than the “pearls” her mother expects.
Amara and the reader learn about the history and culture of Harlem, but it doesn’t feel like an American History lesson. Instead, it feels like a meandering walk through a special place, with a tour guide who writes beautiful novels. Students and families will be intrigued to learn more about Harlem legends like Adam Clayton Powell, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, and Madam C.J. Walker. Readers will want to dive into the poetry of Langston Hughes and visit the famed Apollo Theatre where a broad array of musical greats got their starts. Reading Watson’s rich descriptions will send students searching for images of public art like the subway mosaic Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines by Faith Ringgold and the monumental sculpture Swing Low of Harriet Tubman by Alison Saar.
And the food! Readers will clamor for chicken and waffles, gumbo, and Jamaican beef patties.
Most of all, Renee Watson will invite students and families to talk and learn about the people and places in their own family histories.