Review: The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. Flux, 2011. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: This is a chill cover. The latte on the cover made me long for a warm drink, and I was intrigued by the drawings on the napkin. I confess that I didn’t notice the art in the foam on the latte until I was well into the book. It’s kind of a generic cover, but it avoids many of the typical YA cover stereotypes, and that’s something to be grateful for.

Does it break the slate? Oh yes. It was kind of amusing to watch it happen, too. Asha, our main Slatebreaking lady, breaks the slate almost accidentally. Imagine her walking along with the slate, dropping it and watching it shatter, then quickly shouting out, “I meant to do that!”  I do wish that Asha’s social rebellion had been more intentional, but it was Slatebreaking nonetheless.

Who would we give it to? YA readers who are hungering for books with a diverse cast of characters. This book not only features several dynamic female characters of color, but it also directly addresses issues of race and ethnicity. That’s not something you see very often in YA and it is a welcome change from the norm.

Review: Asha Jamison has had enough. She has taken enough crap from the irritating posers at school and their vapid flunkies. So when Roger Yee tells Asha that she is “barely Asian enough” to be in the Asian American Club at school and then calls her a “towelhead” at a school pool party, Asha gets mad. Really mad. And her best friend Carey tosses a latte in Roger’s face. Later, as the girl’s mull over the incident and make plans for their senior year, Asha gets the idea for The Latte Rebellion.

Initially it starts as a commercial venture to sell t-shirts. Asha wants to have a big adventure with Carey after graduation, and they need money for the trip. Asha brainstorms t-shirts with the slogan “The Latte Rebellion,” featuring an image of the hammer and sickle rising from a steaming cup of coffee. They come up with a latte manifesto espousing the awesomeness of being mixed race, because both Carey and Asha are inspired by their experience as “lattes.” With a snazzy website and some viral marketing, their idea quickly catches on and they start selling more t-shirts than they ever thought they would.

The Latte Rebellion quickly picks up steam because people all over the United States are eager to get behind the idea of a group supporting and promoting mixed race individuals.  Asha sees that her spontaneous idea is actually a good one. People of mixed ethnicity who are frustrated with having to categorize themselves become big supporters of the Latte Rebellion effort and start spreading the idea and pushing for social change. Asha is overwhelmed by the response to the movement, and at first doesn’t really want to deal with it – she’s only concerned about making money.

Eventually Asha realizes that what she has hit on with The Latte Rebellion is something that she wants to learn more about. She experiences some consciousness-raising and starts to realize that people dedicate their lives to social justice and change. Asha sees herself fitting in with these people, and this is how she figures out what to do with her life. It’s a long and bumpy road, but Asha’s discovery is incredibly satisfying to read because she manages to get there herself despite the intense pressure from her friends and family to go a different route.

Soon the school administration hears about The Latte Rebellion, and without allowing the members of the group a fair chance to explain the motivations behind the movement, condemn it as a dangerous terrorist organization. Asha has to decide whether or not she will abandon the cause for the sake of remaining in good standing as a student, or to stick with the movement that she founded. It is an especially tough choice because her best friend Carey decides to back out when the going gets tough. Carey’s decision alters their friendship forever, and Asha has to learn how to move forward without the person that she thought would always be by her side. It is really hard to read this part of the book because it is painful to watch their friendship fall apart, especially if you experienced something similar when you were in high school.

In Asha, Stevenson created a character who has some hard lessons to learn throughout the book. Asha is a procrastinator, and she tends to shove her problems under the rug in the hopes that they will go away before she has to deal with them. Asha is definitely an adolescent. Stevenson knows how to capture the mindset of the teenage years, and Asha embodies that with her rash and sometimes dumbfounding behavior. But Asha isn’t stupid. She is passionate and impulsive, but that does not mean she’s dumb. I was so thankful to read a girl character who makes mistakes – a lot of them, in fact – but is still recognized as an intelligent human being.

This book certainly will stick in my memory for its frank discussion of race. I cannot pretend to understand the challenges of living in the world as a mixed-race individual, because that is not who I am. But this book pushed me to reconsider my own assumptions about race and ethnicity. As a white teaching artist working in Phoenix, Arizona, I encounter cultural differences on a daily basis. The Latte Rebellion reminded me that I cannot assume my students belong to certain ethnic categories simply based on their surname or appearance. Each individual has the right to his or her own unique identity, and to articulate that identity in the way that they feel most comfortable.

The Latte Rebellion brings to the surface issues that usually get ignored in YA literature. This is Stevenson’s first novel, and I look forward to her future work.

Reviewed from library copy.

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