I need to begin this review by stating my unabashed love for author Jason Reynolds. I’ve been enamored with Jason’s work for the past few years and I’ve had the chance to see him talk or present at readings, performances, and conferences five times this year. (I’d like to think these five times were all coincidental, but let’s say that two of the five were coincidences and the other three I went to because I knew I’d have a chance to see him and brag about how many times I saw him later, like right now.)
Reynolds is a writer of the adolescent human spirit and the Black experience. He can express the sensations, frustrations, and temptations of middle school-age characters in novels like Ghost and As Brave as You as easily as he can depict grittier coming-of-age stories of high school-age characters in novels like All-American Boys, When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, and the forthcoming Long Way Down.
In Miles Morales, Reynolds injects Miles Morales with social conscience and dynamic optimism that readers of his other books will find familiar. Miles is a five-day boarding student at Brooklyn Visions Academy (BVA), which he attends on a scholarship. I know what you’re thinking, dorms and academic quadrangles don’t belong in Brooklyn; the pressure to turn some 14-year-old’s dorm into rentals would be way too high for that to work, but go along with the story here.
As one of a few scholarship students at BVA, Miles feels a little on the outside. Aside from his best friend and sidekick Ganke, who lacks for a loving family but presumably doesn’t have to prioritize which bills to pay, and Miles’s love interest, Alicia, who comes from Harlem Renaissance royalty, the only other classmates who seem to get any airtime are the other scholarship students at BVA. Adding to Miles’s outsider status is history teacher Mr. Chamberlain, who seems a little too eager to defend the slave-owning south and admires Jefferson Davis. Miles’s spider-sense is activated by Mr. Chamberlain, and Miles’s reaction to this is interpreted by Mr. Chamberlain as academic misbehavior.
Miles’ issues continue when he considers ditching his work-study job manning the on-campus convenience store for a hot minute to go see Alicia at a poetry reading and receive extra credit. He uses his powers of camouflage to leave the store and go unnoticed on the security camera. During his brief absence, canned sausages are stolen and Miles is suggested as the culprit. Miles refuses to admit that he stole the sausages, but he is also loath to admit the truth about his absence. As a result, superhero Miles is put in an even more vulnerable position as his room and board scholarship is revoked. It’s clear that somebody wants Miles to be vulnerable—but who? Why? What do they know about him?
A few too many interfering plot elements (a letter from a long-lost cousin, the struggle to write a poem for English class, the loss of an uncle, some sketchy neighborhood dudes) bog this book down a bit and detract from the excitement of the villains’ pursuit of Miles. When the big bad boss villain finally arrives deep into the story, there isn’t enough time or space to flesh the villain out to make Miles’ eventual victory satisfying. As much as I admire Reynolds’s riffing here, especially the heart and soul of sidekick Ganke, in a superhero story I want him to stick to the script.
Reynolds is absolutely a poet first and a plotter second. While this strength works well for most of his stories, readers who are picking up this story for cinematic fight scenes and sweeping city travels by web rather than subway are going to be disappointed. However, those who immerse themselves in the story will have an opportunity to visit a larger conversation about race relations in current times. We see Alicia fight for what’s right with protest instead of superpowers and we are given an opportunity to ask if racists are aware of their own hatred. Even Miles’s most utilized superpower in this novel, the ability to go invisible, is a subtle nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
What we learn from this book is that the bravest thing isn’t flying from building to building or defeating a villain with our cunning, because even if we defeat the villain today, systematic oppression will just generate a new villain tomorrow. Instead, we are at our bravest when we work on a broader level to make oppression visible and force others to recognize our humanity through words and actions. But if we happen to have superhuman powers and a costume, even better.
Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel
by Jason Reynolds
Art by Kadir Nelson
Publisher Age Rating: (12+)