Light It Up

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
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Strong police shootings story lacks character development.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The book draws directly from recent events in the United States, especially the Michael Brown shooting and the demonstrations that followed. It explores the social forces fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. The inclusion of Twitter threads and news transcripts effectively raises the issue of how media coverage can affect perceptions and shape events. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The story presents a sympathetic picture of African American teens and explores their rage and distress over racism and police brutality. It also gives a realistic portrait of the inner conflict of a Black man at the top of the corporate ladder. The police are presented stereotypically, as in the shooter who abuses his wife. 


A police officer shoots a girl to death. Another police officer cracks a girl's shoulder with a baton, and she goes to the hospital. One police officer physically abuses his wife. A protest escalates into a riot. A boy pushes a girl against a wall and attempts to rape her. A character is sexually assaulted while drunk. Classmates bully the elementary-age daughter of the police shooter. The violence is not graphic. Not all of it seems necessary the story.


Many of the characters are sexually active. A girl loses her virginity. There are a few dishonest and exploitative sexual relationships, including a boy who has sex with a girl who has an unrequited crush on him, because he's "worked up" by another girl he's infatuated with. Repeated examples of sex presented as something girls give and boys get, something people use to manipulate others, and something that causes people to act foolishly. The author normalizes these negative messages about sexuality.


Occasional use of swear words, including "s--t" and "f--k."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens and underage young adults attend a party where there's drinking. A character is sexually assaulted while drunk, and then makes an ill-advised sexual advance. One of the main narrators is a drug dealer, presumably of marijuana.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Kekla Magoon's Light It Up is a sequel to her Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel How It Went Down. It uses 15 narrators (plus Twitter threads and news reports) to build a portrait of a community's reaction after a white police officer shoots to death a developmentally disabled 13-year-old Black girl. The incident occurs a year after an unarmed Black teen boy met the same fate on the same street. The violence in the book includes the shooting, a police officer breaking a girl's shoulder with his baton, a police officer leaving bruises on his wife, an attempted rape, and a peaceful protest escalating into a riot. Many of the characters are sexually active. A girl loses her virginity with a boy who, it's implied, has had previous sexual experience. Underage teens get drunk at a party. One of the narrators is a drug dealer, presumably of marijuana. One character tags public sites with graffiti. A boy sleeps with a girl after getting "worked up" by the girl he actually prefers. Swear words, including "s--t" and "f--k," appear infrequently.  

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What's the story?

LIGHT IT UP by Kekla Magoon opens one year after an African American boy is shot to death by a police officer. A 13-year-old developmentally disabled Black girl is shot and killed in the same neighborhood. SCORE, an activist organization that takes its cues from the Black Lives Matter movement, gears up to stage a peaceful protest as the community awaits the grand jury's verdict about whether to prosecute. The book is narrated by 15 different individuals who react to these events. The narrators include two activists working at SCORE, other teens in the community, a police officer who serves during the protest, the daughter of the shooter, Black girls who live in the group home with the victim, Black and White college students, and a stepparent who's moved his family to a better neighborhood.

Is it any good?

This novel explores the important issue of police shootings of unarmed African American teens but slips into stereotypes and delivers some mixed messages. Light It Up explains the anger over police brutality against unarmed, innocent Black citizens, including children, and shows positive ways that community activists are addressing the issue. It shows how the media can get the story wrong, as well as the ways people can engage with media to get their voices heard. However, there are some weakness in the characterizations. First, selling drugs and being in a gang are normalized and even a bit romanticized. The book also presents graffiti as justified by the importance by the messages. The male-female relationships also present as normal troubling messages like "Girls give sex to get love and boys give love to get sex." The police are portrayed very stereotypically. The shooter also leaves bruises on his wife. Another officer narrates in poetic snippets that come across as robotic.

The multiple narrators help demonstrate how different community members are impacted by the situation, but character development suffers from this technique. Some of the characters seem two-dimensional. In many cases, they don't seem like real people but like personas created to make a point. The police and White characters in particular express points of view that read like caricature written by someone who can't actually empathize with what such a person might believe. The sexual and romantic dynamics between the boys and girls send some negative messages: There's a general theme that boys want it and girls give it, and a lot of girls are under the sway of "bad boys" (and a predatory man).

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role of law breaking in Light It Up, including civil disobedience, alleged police misconduct, assault of a police officer in defense of a friend, drug dealing, and graffiti. Do you think any of the characters are justified in breaking the law? Why or why not? 

  • How do various forms of media shape public perception and move people to action? Do the arguments on Twitter help or harm the causes people are trying to advance with their posts? How does the senator use the media to shape how the protest plays out?

  • In creating the numerous narrators, the author uses different styles of language. For example, Tina, a girl with autism, speaks in poems, as does Officer Young. What do you think of that choice? Did you enjoy it?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of racism and the importance of consent

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