There’s good reason this is a well-known and well-respected book. Woodson has done a great job with a tough subject, written 16 years ago—long before the publishing world started earnestly trying to make up for its lack of diversity.
At the beginning of the story, Toswiah Green is a happy 12-year-old girl in a happy family. She’s black and her father is a Denver police officer. Everything’s great—until her father witnesses two white officers shoot an unarmed black teenager. He can’t live with himself if he doesn’t say what he saw—a murder. But that’s not going to fly with the rest of the police force, so the family has to go into witness protection so he can testify.
Toswiah becomes Evie and her sister (Cameron) becomes Anna. By the time they leave, Toswiah’s 13 and Cameron’s 14. Everyone knows what witness protection is, but Woodson really brings to life the trauma and finality of it. Both Evie and Anna have trouble adjusting to their new lives because they loved the ones they left behind so much. Their mom throws herself into a new religion. But their father has the most difficulty, basically passing the time by sitting and staring out the window.
Evie starts trying to get her life in order while still feeling disconnected from the rest of her family. She takes up track and finally makes some friends. But it’s not enough. Her sister is threatening to leave to go to a college that allows early admittance, her mom is still obsessed with religion, and her dad’s still staring out the window. So there’s a long way to go.
There’s a lot of subtlety to the book. It’s about race, but that hardly gets specifically mentioned. The more overt themes—identity and doing the right thing—are addressed more directly. Toswiah/Evie ponders her father’s choice. Was it right, given the impact it has on the family. She also spends a lot of time and emotional energy on her identity. Is she still Toswiah now that she’s Evie? Who is she, really? The answers don’t come easily but Woodson handles it with deep understanding. All her characters are well-developed. The language is lovely, too, while still staying believably in a young (heartbroken) teen girl’s voice.
I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The novel might be considered YA but on the younger end of the spectrum. It might be more appropriate under the middle grade umbrella. So it is appropriate for younger readers, but no less relevant to teens and adults.