Book Review: Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

My oldest daughter is 15 and a sophomore in high school. This puts her about a year behind Moss, the main character in Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift. She lives on the opposite coast (he’s in Oakland, CA and she’s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). Her school is majority white and overwhelmingly students of high socioeconomic status. The school Moss attends is definitely neither of those things. Moss is Black. My child is white. Moss is gay. My child is straight. Seemingly they have nothing in common. However, within the first few pages of Anger is a Gift I knew it was a book she should read as Moss faces serious challenges with anxiety, something my daughter knows well. I know very little about the author, Mark Oshiro, but he either has faced anxiety himself or he knows it through someone close to him as his descriptions and explanations of what Moss faces are beautifully done.

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Moss’s father was killed by a police office several years before this book takes place. Moss’s school now has police presence and metal detectors. The issues of police brutality and police violence are front and center in this book and Oshiro doesn’t pull punches (at least to my naive eyes). One character realizes, late in the book, has much she didn’t truly understand the lives of her friends in West Oakland. The reader is right there beside her. Oshiro paints a vivid picture of life in many cities in the US for people of color. The picture is not only vivid but it is also multi-dimensional. Friendships, family, falling in love, and daily routines (like a haircut) are all a part of Moss’s life. No matter what, however, the shadow of the police and their power is always there.

The book is compelling. The characters are wonderful. Moss, his mother, the boy he meets on the train in the beginning, his friends, the people in his community, his teachers, they all get a chance to be seen and heard in this book. I fell in love with them.

Moss and his friends are frustrated and angry about the police presence and metal detectors in their school. The book centers around that and the choices they make. It’s a first novel for Oshiro and it isn’t perfect. But its flaws, its imperfections are no greater than the flaws and imperfections in reality and in our lives. They are small speed bumps in the book. Small missteps in an important story told well.

If I had read this book two years ago (which I couldn’t as it wasn’t out then) I would have questioned the representation of many of Moss’s friends. When it comes to sexuality they run across the spectrum. Two years ago that would have felt forced for me. With a daughter in high school that is no longer true. Her friend group, aside from being mostly white, reminds me a lot of Moss’s. Oshiro’s portrayal felt right to me, based on that experience.

I have long thought beginnings and endings are hard to write. The beginning of Anger is a Gift is wonderful. The ending is pretty darned good. Not perfect, but I’m not sure how it could have been better without being a book that the reader would hate at the end. Oshiro walked a fine line between the reality faced by people of color and the need for some hope and optimism for young readers.

I don’t write book reviews very often. Many books I read that touch me are books that are being discussed everywhere and I don’t see what I have to add to the discussion. I haven’t seen as much talk about Anger is a Gift and that surprises me. It’s a book that should be read widely.

Interestingly enough, I finished the book last night and then finally listened to this brief podcast on discussing race in the classroom this morning. It is a short discussion between Larry Ferlazzo and Marian Dingle and it’s been an open tab for me since it happened (I’m bad at listening to things or watching videos – I’m good at reading stuff). It’s only ten minutes and it would be worth far longer than that of your time. It reminded me of Anger is a Gift in many ways and especially with the windows it opened for me.

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