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Books in Brief: Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany Jackson; Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes


Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson, with lyrics by Malik "Malik-16" Sharif; Katherine Tegen Books, 376 pages ($17.99) Ages 13 and up.


From the author of YA novels "Allegedly" and "Monday's Not Coming" comes a thrilling, heart-rending, unforgettable novel of a promising teen rap artist, killed at 17 in an apparent street shooting in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the valiant, dangerous effort by his two best friends and his younger sister to make Stephon Davis a star – and find his killer.

Jackson effectively shifts back and forth in time and uses multiple narrators - Steph himself, his friends Quadir and Jarrell and sister Jasmine – as she paints a vivid picture of life in Bed-Stuy in the late '90s, the vibrant rap scene, the housing projects where Jasmine and Jarrell live with their mothers and younger siblings trying to avoid the crack scourge and its accompanying violence, amidst general distrust of police and a code against "snitching." The action takes place in the aftermath of the March 1997 murder of rapper Biggie Smalls,  the four teens skipping school to be among the crowds lining the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the funeral procession of their fallen idol to pass by.

After Steph is shot and killed a year later, a grief-stricken Jasmine and his two best friends find a stash of shoeboxes containing tapes, CDs, and journals full of lyrics under his bed. (The rap lyrics used in the novel are by Malik "Malik-16" Sharif.) Jasmine is intent on finding her brother's killer but goes along with Quadir and Jarrell's plan to turn Steph into a rap superstar by pretending he is still alive and using the name the Architect. (The two boys don't tell Jasmine they found a shoebox of crack, with a pager and gun under the bed too.) When Jasmine goes to Steph's workplace to collect his last paycheck, she discovers he wasn't working there as he said he was. What other secrets was Steph hiding? The use of multiple narrators allows the principals to keep secrets from each other and is an effective way to ramp up the suspense as the teens investigate Steph's murder.

Just a sample of her prose: "Steph steadied himself on the narrow windowsill, feet propped up on the radiator melting the bottom of his Timbs. Project heat is the type of heat that makes walls sweat, pipes hot enough to burn the skin off knuckles, and windows fog with condensation.'' Or Jasmine, fleeing mourners packed into their small apartment: "I rush out the room, in search of air that's not mixed with perfume, pity and fried chicken."

The teens' deception in marketing Steph as a living, breathing rapper backfires spectacularly, and Jackson cleverly unwraps the truth about Steph's tragic death in the novel's stirring, suspenseful conclusion. Steph emerges as a fallen hero, in this fine novel honoring the power of art to right injustice and speak truth to power. In the acknowledgements at the end, Jackson notes that she was 15 years old when Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. Her novel is "a love letter to hip-hop, to Brooklyn, to my childhood, and to everyone we lost before they had their time to shine."


Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes; Greenwillow, 183 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


This spare, beautifully written novel is the work of the multi-talented Kevin Henkes, winner of Newbery honors for his writing and the Caldecott Medal for illustration.

With a wonderful economy of prose, he paints a vivid picture of lonely 12-year-old Amelia, whose mother died when she was 2 years old. Amelia doesn't remember her at all. Her father, a cranky English professor who is not good at communicating, spends most of his time on campus while Amelia is cared for by wonderful neighbor Mrs. O'Brien, purveyor of cookies and comfort. It's spring break, and Amelia would like to go on vacation somewhere, but her father (she refers to him as "The Professor") considers vacations to be too much trouble. So while her best friend Natalie goes to France, Amelia spends her days at the nearby clay studio, where she meets 12-year-old Casey, who is staying with his aunt while his parents work on their marital problems.  The two adolescents take comfort in each other, until Casey suggests that a red-haired woman who has been seen around the neighborhood might, in fact, be Amelia's mother. Could this be true?

Henkes set his novel in Madison, Wisc., where he lives. Here's a sample of his prose, of Amelia working in the clay studio:

"Amelia stared at the lump of clay for about a hundred years. And then she forgot it was a lump of clay and she pushed and pulled and pinched and poked. She smoothed and carved and smoothed. She concentrated. She smashed it flat and began again. What started out being a slender deer turned into a long-necked bird and then a squat rabbit with ears like paddles. The rabbit was good. She liked it. She gave it eyes and a tail."

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