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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

JAMAAL'S JOURNEY----THOSE LAST FEW MONTHS OF HIGH SCHOOL

It’s the end of June, and during this past week, at least in my corner of the world, high schools celebrate the jubilant passing of students moving from one stage of their lives to the next.  Most graduating seniors throw up their caps, make or listen to speeches urging them forward, and seem in the midst of graduation euphoria.  For a moment, at least, the world looks bright to many of them.  In fact, for many, this is a brief period of time when the tensions of the last few months ease, and the future, seen through tearfully blurred vision, seems set.  Not so for others. 

It is the last three months of Senior Year that John McCormack captures in his novel, Jamaal’s Journey. Throughout that short period of time, McCormack’s perceptive book delves into the growing pains, questions, happinesses and sorrows that face a primarily minority group of students.  At best the teenage years are not easy ones, but for Jamaal and his friends, the struggle is a constant.

Jamaal, an African American HS senior, is trying to find his way, and as we travel with him on his journey, he deals with all the teenage trials—how to win the girl of his dreams, how not to break a heart or to have his own heart broken, how to move ahead in a world where even his language has to be altered to avoid ostracism by his friends or ostracism by the wider world he will enter as a college freshman.  It’s a thin tightrope to walk where reaching the goal of getting to the opposite landing is fraught with anxiety and questions that are sometimes unanswerable.  Jamaal relies on his friends, many of whom cannot travel the same path as he.

Despite the underlying seriousness of his novel, John McCormack packs Jamaal’s Journey  full of humor, irony, and typical teenage gaffes.  Jamaal and his friends make real life choices, overcome obstacles, sometimes are beaten into defeat, and sometimes display strength of character and mind in admirable ways.  It’s so real that you wish you could intercede and make the road a bit smoother.  The reader cannot help but recall the universal problems teenagers face and cheers these young people on throughout the story. 

Don't think for a moment that this is a dark, dour book.  McCormack captures the cadence of  language and weaves it into Jamaal’s story, sometimes narrated by Jamaal and sometimes by someone more omniscient.  The book is full of the ironic consequences of youthful decisions and the yearnings and laughter at parties where teenagers work on perfecting their coolness in front of others.  It’s about friendship, loyalty, and resilience among peers.  It’s about love of family and friends as well as the realization that after high school, things will never be quite the way it is in this point of time. Jamaal’s Journey reflects life, and life is never all good or all bad.

Real life is full of choices, and Jamaal’s choices set him on a journey he can barely envisage.  It’s more like a dream he is chasing.  He and his friends illustrate the problems in our society when socio-economic hardships so hamper children that simply getting to school each day is a problem.  Yet, they also illustrate the intrepid spirit within that helps them deal with the problems they face and overcome.

Jamaal’s Journey might be an eye-opener into teenage culture for adults, but it is also an excellent book if you are traveling with a teenager.  There are lots of lessons to be learned as he/she is being entertained by reading a good book. 

Jamaal’s Journey has already earned several awards in its category:

“Kirkus Indie Book of the Month Selection” for April, 2014
The San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for YA in 2015
The National Indie Excellence Finalist Award for African-American Fiction in 2015
The Award Winning Finalist in the “Fiction: African-American” category of the 2015 International Book Awards


As a disclaimer, I should reveal that I taught at Spring Valley Senior High School with John McCormack.  But I really enjoyed reading Jamaal’s Journey, and I hope you will too.  It is available through Amazon.
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