review: Why We Fly

Title: Why We Fly
Authors: Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
Date: Sourceboooks; 2021
Main characters: Eleanor “Leni” Greenberg and Chanel Rose Irons
YA reality fiction

We’ve come to look at many YA novels as ‘coming of age’ books. Eleanor (Jewish) and Chanel (African American) may come of age in this sophomore novel, however I find it much more appropriate to see our young protagonists as beginning their search for liberation. In their senior year, with college and all the successes they hope it leads to looming in front of them, the girls are individually re-assessing how they’ve been living their lives, and what they really want to do next. How will they acheive any sort of freedom/ Some of this re-assessment is forced upon them when Eleanor leads their cheerleading squad to take a knee during the national anthem at a football game, and there are unforeseen repercussions.

To me, the characters existed to give voice to instances of social injustice, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. it does leaves character flat and undeveloped but young readers are given a portrayal of how rigid social systems are, and how many adults maintain them. Readers are there with the Eleanor and Chanel as they become exposed to systemic racism, anti-Jewish sentiment, and classism. Unfortunately, with so much attention to the situations, we end up with several stereotypes such as white women who don’t seem racist but, don’t do the work to be anti-racist; Black women who are “strong” (these women are focused, determined and influential leaders) and face a limited range of emotions; and white men who always dominate the narrative.

The lifelong friends have built their lives around cheerleading. Examples of their attitudes, daily routines, and commitment make it easy for readers to see them as athletes, although the school’s football coach sees them as no more than sideline entertainment. Their dedication to cheerleading is a perfect vehicle to explore why athletes take a knee, and the personal, and professional liabilities they are explore to for this decision to do what some consider disrespecting the flag. Three, a Black football prodigy who is also Eleanor’s love interest, has spent his life under his father’s direction trying to build a football career. He seems to want to support the movement to protest police shootings of Black people, but he too, is caught in the system. He speaks directly to Eleanor, who’s trying to use cheerleading to build her career, and he says

“There are no guarantees, Leni. The man you claim you’re trying to support? He sat out of the game he trained his whole life to play because of his protest. He just got back in the league. Nobody knows how it’s gonna go for him. If he has one bad season, you know they’ll use it as an excuse to dump him.” Three lets go of me and backs away. Something inside my chest crumbles, “I’ve got too much riding on this. I can’t take that chance.” (p. 169)

Where will he find his liberation?

Anti-Blackness is there, but never really explored. After the young women take a knee, Chanel sends out a Tweet further supporting the cheerleader’s action (from home on her personal account), she’s suspended for nine days, way longer than other students for even lesser offenses. Eleanor is concerned about Chanel because Eleanor needs her help, not because of the suspension. But then, she’s confronted by Three.

He looks up into my face, eyes like lasers, mouth flat. “How come your girl got suspended, but you’re still in class, still on the sidelines at the game, still sitting here talking about walkouts?’

“It’s because she tweeted—”

‘You think that’s why? Your whole squad did this thing. You’re the captain. How come they didn’t come down on you? How come she’s the only one?”

I blink. Yes, it was a group decision, and I am the captain. But I didn’t tweet about it. That made a difference. Didn’t it? They are making an example of her, but doesn’t that make it more important to fight back?

Three’s not done. He moves my knees aside to make space for himself to stand. “You ever think about why you got named captain? Why your coach picked you? You sat on that bench all last year, injured. Chanel carried that team. And yet, when it came down to picking captain, somehow, it wasn’t her. Why do you think that is?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” A bowling ball rolls into my stomach and settles there. “Are you saying I don’t deserve to be captain?” (p. 204-5)

Eleanor is confronted by her Black boyfriend about the treatment of her closest friend, a young Black woman, and she never takes the opportunity to question this, to reflect on the power dynamics that are really at play here. Instead, she’s hurt that Three has confronted her publicly and they break up. Chanel is intimately involved with Black people but, never understands their Blackness, a part of their identity. Eleanor finds solace in her older sister.

The team’s decision to take a knee to publicly demonstrate their support for Black lives is a vehicle for Chanel and Eleanor’s searching as they realize the impact of activism on personal and collective liberation. Some choose one type of liberation over the other, as with these two young women.