Danielle Ford narrates the first chapter. She’s in her senior year of high school in Detroit. It’s one of those YA fictional schools where teachers, lessons and actual work rarely intrude upon the main business of the day – Relationships. Dani thought she’d got everything sorted. She already thinks of herself as a writer, and that’s what she wants to be. She aims high. Her heroines – her mentors – are Black women writers; the likes of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. Her next step is to write her application for college in New York City.
Dani is the only child of a couple who still treat each other like young lovers. Mom is entranced by Black romantic movies, Dad enjoys his successful army career. All should be secure for Dani – but it isn’t. She’s got writer’s block and can’t get anywhere with the essay she has to submit along with her application. She’s supposed to write about some experience which “sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself and others”. She’s even tried writing – but not mailing – letters to those mentors to clear her mind; but the block won’t shift. Something traumatic has happened, but as yet she can’t face thinking it through. It will take three lengthy flashbacks, spaced throughout the novel, for her to do that. She’ll only be ready to revisit the episode through getting to know her co-narrator, DJ LoveJones, whom she’s about to meet in Chapter Three.
Prince Jones has been trying to talk to Dani for years. She was “the girl my homies have been clowning me about since middle-school,” he admits. “The crush I could never shake.” For all his quick-tongued wit and his popularity as a teenage radio DJ whose passion for Black music is coupled with advice to callers troubled in love, his own romantic track record isn’t too hot. Prince’s home life doesn’t leave him much space. His Pops is not around; he tries to support his Mom, who was diagnosed with MS when he was nine; and his kid brother, Mook, has ADHD and needs loads of Prince’s loving attention. Prince has no plans for life after school until a perceptive guidance counsellor prompts him into action; that and a chance meeting with Dani Ford in a bookstore when he was looking for picture books with Black characters, hoping Mook will find echoes there of his own culture.
His conversation with Dani triggers everything. At first, he stumbles for words but after a couple of subsequent low-key meetings, Prince risks a half-flippant challenge; if Dani will allow him three dates, he guarantees that she’ll fall for him. By now, Dani has sensed a more serious, searching self in Prince, and so she warily agrees. Those ingeniously planned dates and her growing trust in Prince enable her to face that traumatic moment in her past. Together, Dani and Prince find far more than those three dates seemed to promise.
There could also be an unusual challenge for UK readers of this book. The narrators’ idiom is that of smart Black teenagers in contemporary Detroit. For some fifty pages, I confess to being derailed by unknown vocabulary or references which expected to be taken as read. But initial alienation gave way to enjoyment as language became familiar through context or repetition. There are cultural differences – for example, the main event in the closing chapters is an evening showcasing hair and all things hair-related when one of Dani’s friends stages a Black and Beautiful celebration – Hair Wars – a hair-styling parade, emceed by Prince with Dani proudly walking the runway as top model. For UK readers much will depend upon their own flexibilities and curiosity. They may well find two engaging young people whose sensitive exploration of each other and themselves is often cautious and respectful – even fearful – yet also exciting and overwhelming in what is revealed. By the final page, Dani ought to find that application essay has almost written itself.