Burn Baby Burn, by Meg Medina, was published in 2016 by Candlewick.
Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York. After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the street seemingly at random. Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays. And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?
I kinda loved Burn Baby Burn and I’m not sure why. At least, I’m not sure why the presence of things I don’t like in contemporary young adult literature didn’t make me instantly hate the book. Maybe it was the historical aspect of it, the tension as a result of Son of Sam and the 1977 blackout that resulted in the largest mass arrest in history (3,776). I don’t think I could have ignored the content if it hadn’t been for the historical fiction aspect. Or maybe it was the depiction of juvenile domestic violence, which Medina states in her author’s note as a “chronically underreported issue,” a depiction that made me sit up and say, “Why isn’t this mentioned more often?” Whatever it was, I devoured this book and got lost in the pages.
Most of all, I think this book reminded me of some of the reasons why I used to read contemporary young adult literature (until I finally got sick of all the negative and destructive images and ideas). Good YA lit. is powerful. It packs a punch and takes no prisoners. It’s not afraid to depict the least-heard-of in society, the hard times, the pivotal moments in our history relayed through the eyes of someone who is not ourselves. And yes, there’s bad content in it, and yes, it’s aggravating (at least for me) to read such casual mentions of something that should not be casual at all, but it somehow gripped me anyway—and that’s the mark of a good story.
Burn Baby Burn is not for everyone. But it’s certainly a book that can be read and discussed and raises important questions, especially in reference to domestic violence. It’s also great for its historical aspect alone, which is, now that I think about it, probably the reason I loved it so much. Historical fiction, especially young adult historical fiction, is a great genre, and Burn Baby Burn fits rights in.
Recommended Age Range: 16+
Warnings: Domestic violence, drug abuse, arson, murder, sexual situations, swearing.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“The whole city is going crazy! And your hermanito is out there.” Her jaw quivers. “Did he take a coat?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What if something happened and he’s cold? What if he doesn’t have spare change to call home?”
I ignore her.
“And what is his fascination with this screaming music? Why are a bunch of grown men yelling and jumping like that, anyway?”
I turn up the TV and pretend to concentrate as the news drones on. I can’t stop thinking about this girl’s rag-doll body, the police standing over her, the strange angle of those stylish boots. I’m thinking of the decoy cops who might be sitting down the block right now.
Maybe I should be worried.