Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal

Oof, this is a gut punch of a book, that tackles not only how racism affects high school athletes but also how relationships fade away as graduation and college loom nearer.

Eleanor “Leni” Greenberg and Chanel “Nelly” Irons are best friends and members of their high school’s competitive cheerleading team. In the summer leading up to their senior year, Nelly is off at a prestigious cheer camp while Leni is stuck in their Georgia town, undergoing physical therapy in order to clear herself to get back to cheerleading after her second and more serious concussion. It’s at PT that Leni runs into Three, the handsome school quarterback who’s looking to break records in his senior year and get recruited by a top tier footballing school. His parents are notorious for shopping him around to scouts, after having more or less successfully done the same for his three older brothers.

After Leni offers to give Three a ride home, he asks her to start working out with him. Their workouts lead to an easy friendship and more. Nelly, on returning from cheer camp, is not pleased at what she sees as a distraction from the girls’ plan to focus on cheer so they can both get into colleges with good business schools. Smart, ambitious Nelly has her sights on UPenn or Cornell. Leni’s grades have gone down sharply since her concussions, but the girls are hoping that a good showing at the cheerleading nationals will make up for that. But when the more laidback Leni gets elected captain of the cheer squad over no-nonsense Nelly, a seemingly unshakable wedge is driven between the girls that could change their relationship forever.

Oh, man, I really felt for Nelly throughout this book, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. While I’m neither as ambitious or organized, I’m definitely as bossy, if only because I hate when groups waste time hemming and hawing over what they could be doing instead of actually doing (my take-charge attitude greatly irritates the passive-aggressive, ofc.) When Nelly’s the only person singled out for punishment after the squad takes a knee to protest racism, I felt that personally. Furthermore, I loved how this book unabashedly points out how Black girls and women are the least protected segment of society, even with Nelly’s amazing parents in her corner! Speaking of whom, I loled at the car scene towards the end of the book. Poor Nelly. But I’m glad they busted her before her recreational activities became the problem they were clearly starting to be.

Leni was also a sympathetic protagonist, and certainly more so than Three. I get that she wasn’t technically his girlfriend, but Bull was way out of line in saying that she couldn’t claim to be broken up with either. Idk, maybe that’s young people for you, but IMO if someone doesn’t want to be as intensely close as they used to be previously, whether in friendly or romantic fashion, that’s a breakup. What I did appreciate about Leni’s story — besides the excellent and honestly quite frightening details of the aftermath of her concussions — was how she learned both the difference between a movement and a moment, and how to be an accomplice instead of just an ally.

It did make me sad that Leni showed more interest in reconciling with Three than Nelly towards the end, but in all honesty, I’m glad that everyone came out the other side of this a better person. The best YA literature, to me, is when kids fuck up but learn to do better. Why We Fly depicts all that and more, capturing perfectly the bittersweetness of senior year as kids strive to make the best of that springboard year to adulthood, while tackling also the very real issues of racism, sexism and privilege in America in a highly believable manner.

Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal was published October 5 2021 by Sourcebooks Fire and is available from all good booksellers, including

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