So I wrote yesterday about using my platform to share books by marginalized authors. I also mentioned, briefly, the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. As Riordan himself says, “The point of Rick Riordan Presents is to publish and promote great voices from cultures that have been too often marginalized or erased by mainstream culture.”. He goes on to say, in the intro to Race to the Sun, “No one has suffered from this more than Native and Indigenous peoples.”. As a reader, as a bookseller, as a book *lover*, it makes my heart happy that this exists, and that Riordan is using his considerable voice to help boost others without that same amount of wattage. I’m also super pleased that, in reading Race to the Sun, it was just as good as I’d hoped it would be.
I came to this particular title as a fan of Roanhorse’s Sixth World series. I truly enjoyed the cultural aspect she brought to those titles, and was absolutely thrilled that she was getting so much recognition. However, I was also a little nervous about this book – it is not uncommon for authors who started out in adult titles to really struggle writing middle grade. The voices sometimes don’t sound authentic – either it feels like they’re trying too hard, or like they’re (unintentionally) talking down to their audience. I’m certain it’s a difficult balance, particularly if you’re used to writing for adults, but it’s definitely one that too many struggle with. So having said that – I was afraid to get my hopes up for this, Roanhorse’s middle grade debut. Happily, the worry was all for nought.
In Race to the Sun, Nizhoni Begay realizes that she is seeing monsters. Granted, they *look* like people, but they feel weird to her, and tend to have creepy red eyes. It all comes to a head one day when during a basketball game at school, she sees one watching her – and learns that he (it?) is her dad’s new boss. From there, adventures ensue, with Nizhoni, her best friend Davery, and her brother Mac trying to find a way to defeat the monster. They find they are aided (or not) by some Navajo gods they have only ever heard stories about.
The characters are so well done! The best characters feel *real* when readers begin to know them. They can be pictured, they can be empathized with (or detested, as the case may be), and there’s a sense of a relationship as the story goes along. Nizhoni is a girl who has begun learning about her Navaho heritage, but not always willingly. She’s had a bit of a rough life, as has her brother, who gets picked on relentlessly. She’s a combination of spunk, anxiety, and determination, with a smidge of sarcasm thrown in for good measure. Her brother and her best friend have the same sense of realness – one who is used to being the brunt of all torments, and the other who is super smart and tries to talk Nizhoni out of some of her more…bravado…ideas. As for the gods themselves, well…this book just made me want to learn more. They made me giggle, and occasionally, just have ALL THE FEELS.
The story is fairly fast-paced, so it will work even for more reluctant readers. A smidge of danger, some wise-cracking, and a dramatic denouement that will leave everyone cheering – it’s perfect for middle-grade readers. Having said that, it would also be excellent for as a read-aloud in class, for middle-grade or even upper elementary/lower-level high school. The glossary of terms (with pronunciation!) in the back was brilliant and so helpful. For those who are not familiar with Navaho, as is the case with me, it was nice to know that was back there so I didn’t feel like I was butchering anything *too* badly.
Overall, I really did enjoy this book. Much more than I even anticipated. I am truly hoping that it becomes the first in a series – or even a trilogy – because I would love to read more about these kids, the prophecy surrounding them (no spoilers!), and the Navaho culture from one who knows. As Riordan said, the Native culture has been the one that has been suppressed and oppressed the most. Even as other POC have begun having their voices amplified, little by little, Native culture has not had the same boost. That is, however, beginning to change, with titles like this one. Having this book out there will be invaluable for those who have felt their voices minimized and shunted aside, allowing so many kids to see themselves in a story and, hopefully, realize that they *do* matter.