Review: The Harlem Charade by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley

Harlem is home to all kinds of kids. Jin sees life passing her by from the window of her family’s bodega. Alex wants to help the needy one shelter at a time, but can’t tell anyone who she really is. Elvin’s living on Harlem’s cold, lonely streets, surviving on his own after his grandfather was mysteriously attacked.

When these three strangers join forces to find out what happened to Elvin’s grandfather, their digging leads them to an enigmatic artist whose missing masterpieces are worth a fortune-one that might save the neighborhood from development by an ambitious politician who wants to turn it into Harlem World, a ludicrous historic theme park. But if they don’t find the paintings soon, nothing in their beloved neighborhood will ever be the same … — [X]

Jin first notices Alex in her grandparents’ bodega, leaving transit cards for people to use and Jin is intrigued by Alex’s secret community service. When Jin realizes that they share a class together, she talks her way into being Alex’s partner for a class project on their neighbourhood. From there, an unlikely partnership is formed. A partnership that eventually turns into a real friendship when they agree to help Elvin, a kid on his own in Harlem, find the people who hurt his grandfather.

There are many things to recommend The Harlem Charade–including the fact that Bahni Turpin, one of the narrators for The Sun Is Also a Star, brings this story to life in the audiobook edition–but the thing I love most is that Harlem is the setting. The other boroughs tend to make appearances in everything from children’s fantasy novels to superhero comics, but Harlem is a rare choice. And I know it’s cliché to say the city is one of the characters, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that Harlem competes against Jin, Alex, and Elvin for my affections.

Through The Harlem Charade, we learn about the way Harlem changed American–as well as international–culture, and continues to do so: all because of its incredible community. We get a sense of the way race, racial history, politics, and power shape everything, from the way art is created to the way communities crumble. I mean, guys, this is a middle grade novel that perfectly explains how people can use art to resist and what exactly gentrification means for a neighbourhood. Not once would a reader need a dictionary because everything is told shown without slowing down the action. For this alone, I think The Harlem Charade deserves a place in every school library in North America.

Aside from that, the plot is a compelling one. It weaves Harlem’s history with Harlem’s future, while populating its present with three brilliant characters. Jin, Alex, and Elvin, each take turns narrating the story and every time the perspective shifts, we not only learn more about the characters themselves, but we also get to see how each character experiences Harlem and understand their reasons behind investigating the assault on Elvin’s grandfather. Each of the characters are so different and at times don’t seem to have any inkling about what the other is going through, but they are still a flawless team and a pleasure to read. (Or listen to.) I loved this book so much I honestly wish it were a series. Jin, Alex, and Elvin may be my new favourite MG trio.