As a reader, one of the things I really enjoy about a book is reading about people who are nothing like me. A successful book can take me away from my world and transport me somewhere completely foreign, do it successfully and leave me with a sense of understanding and appreciation of different experiences and lifestyles. Steve Brezenoff’s sophomore ya novel Brooklyn Burning offered me just that.
A fire that began over a year ago at the old warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is an open case. There’s no suspect in the crime, though many believe 16-year-old Kid has had something to do with it.
Who is Kid? Well, Kid is a genderless teen who lives sometimes in the streets of Brooklyn and sometimes in the basement of the bar run by Fish. Kid was madly in love with Felix, who took up residence in the old warehouse that summer. But when the fire happened, he disappeared. And now Kid is lost, shuffling among a few bar regulars who become friends, including Konny. The Konny with whom Kid has also been madly in love with; she doesn’t reciprocate the crush, though.
But this summer, someone new’s in town. Someone who, like Kid, struggles with identity and struggles to find a place to fit in. Scout quickly becomes Kid’s closest friend, but knowing what Kid knows about those who just show up for the summer, Kid’s cautious in pursuing a romantic relationship with Scout, even though there are real feelings developing between the two of them. But this might be the summer that things just change and Kid may have to come to terms with these feelings and may have to pursue one of the scariest things imaginable.
Part love story, part mystery, and part story of identity, Brooklyn, Burning was unlike any story I’ve read before. Although the description sounds a little convoluted, it can’t be explained any other way. Kid and Scout are both genderless in the story. We don’t know whether they’re male or female, and the importance of this is that it doesn’t matter one bit. Kid expresses feelings toward Felix and toward Konny, and as readers, we accept this. We have to accept this, as it’s the only way to understand why Kid chooses not to identify as either male or female, and it’s also the only way to understand why Kid develops such incredible feelings toward Scout.
This is not a quick paced book. It’s slow and deliberate, as we’re introduced to the life that Kid leads: there is little safe in Kid’s world. Although bar owner Fish lets Kid periodically stay in the lower level of the establishment, we know when the cops drop by the question Kid about the warehouse fire and to give Fish grief about serving underage clients that this living arrangement is unstable. It’s nothing that could be considered a real life. Kid’s mother and father aren’t in the picture either: even though Kid’s mother accepts the lifestyle Kid leads, Kid’s father does not. He’s delineated as downright angry, and in those brief moments when Kid does sneak time in at home, we know it’s extremely uncomfortable. We feel it right along with Kid.
Brezenoff develops an extremely sympathetic character in Kid, even if as readers we really do not get to know the character well. We know more about the circumstances surrounding Kid, but do we really know Kid? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure Kid would want us to, either. Being a teen with little stable in one’s life and with the knowledge that one’s gender identity is fluid, rather than solid is good enough. This flux is the heart of the story. We’re meant to accept Kid at face level and ride along as Kid’s accused of starting this massive fire and while Kid experiences the ups and downs of connecting with other people romantically. As readers, we bring our own experiences in love — both required and not requited — and we feel everything Kid goes through in deciding whether pursuing a relationship with Scout is worthwhile. The moments when Kid opens up to Scout are aching, as it’s here we not only get a sense of the greater context of the story but also of the immense uncertainty that exists in this 16-year-old’s life. Because we have to keep reminding ourselves that Kid is only 16, not an independent adult.
There is a lot in this story readers will latch onto, including the setting. I’ve spent no time in Brooklyn personally, and though I’ve read a few stories set in this part of New York City, the street setting here is palpable. It’s a minute setting without a huge setting, as Kid’s life really revolves within a few blocks; it’s Kid’s entire life encapsulated in this tiny niche within one of the largest cities in the world. The parallels are obvious, but they’re pretty powerful. For urban teens, this will resonate greatly, but even for readers in the suburbs or in rural areas, this still works. It gives them a glimpse into the city life but also offers the realization that even life in a big city can be small and isolated.
Then, there’s the mystery of the fire. Kid gives readers small insights into this aspect of the plot, but it’s never made a huge part of the story. Except, of course, it really is the story here: we know Kid knows something, but as readers, we’re as privy to this information as the police are. As the story unfolds though, and Kid becomes more comfortable with Scout (and with the fact Felix is not going to be coming back), we get more. It’s the big reveal about the cause of the fire that re-grounds the story in Brooklyn and re-grounds the story as one about gender politics. The pacing is spot on here, and the way the intricate strings of the story tie together here is well done without feeling moralistic or political and more importantly, it never panders to the readers.
I finished this book a couple of weeks before diving into A. S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz and when I finished King’s book, I was immediately reminded of Brooklyn, Burning. Although the narrative structures and storylines aren’t the same, they’re fantastic read alikes to one another, as they tackle heavy issues of love, family, acceptance, and the importance of place. It’s a realistic story and one that throws readers into an unstable world, but one that ends with just the right amount of hope. My only real issue is that it might be a difficult sell to readers, given that the book’s difficult to describe succinctly without labeling it as one type of book. But I believe pairing it up with books of similar threads will be key to getting it in the right hands. Like always, it’s worth reading the author’s note at the very end, as well. Some of what’s mentioned there will answer your own and teen reader questions about the setting and about Kid.
Keep your eyes on this one next January. I think it has a real chance at recognition by the Stonewall Awards, a recognition for books that highlight LGBTQ issues.
Review copy received from the publisher. Brooklyn, Burning is available now.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).