By Mary Eisenhart,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Intense, angry, poetic tale of interracial friendship.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Lots of detail, in the story and in the afterword, about graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the theory and practice of punk rock, particularly The Clash and Joe Strummer. As the title suggests, the beginnings of hip-hop and breakdancing are important to the story. Historic events of the era affect the characters' lives relatably, as Pie's father long ago left his girlfriend and unborn child to return to his homeland in Congo and take part in political events there, and JJ's immigrant father loses job, income, and status when the air traffic controllers' strike is crushed by President Ronald Reagan. The Solidarity movement in Poland is important to JJ, and the contrast between the two labor movements and their fates looms large in JJ's mind.
Friendship and family matter, but they tend to get crushed anyway. Still, you have to find your path and do your best by your loved ones. Art helps build connection and hope.
Positive Role Models
The two protagonists are flawed, battered (emotionally and otherwise) and angry, but also bright, spirited, determined, tenacious, protective of their loved ones, and occasionally hopeful. Each of them is so caught up in his own very real, debilitating troubles that he doesn't really see what's behind moments when the other seems to deliberately fail him. Pie loves his little sister and makes a point of helping her in school, which is easier for him than for her. Pie's form of self-expression involves spray-painting his tags on other people's buildings, which he calls art and others would call vandalism. Some adult characters are irresponsible and/or hopeless about life, and Pie's father is just plain absent. Pie's mother is mentally ill and he has to fend for himself a lot. When she's having a bad episode her boyfriend locks her in her room to keep her from wandering the neighborhood and becoming a crime victim. Pie's aunt, JJ's grandmother, and a kind teacher stand out as persistently strong, wise, and helpful to the best of their ability.
Pie's mother is Puerto Rican, his absent father a Black man from Congo. JJ's White father and grandparents immigrated to the U.S. when his father was 12. Both Polish and Puerto Rican food, culture, and language are important to the story. Pie is frequently on the receiving end of racist behavior, as JJ sees when a teacher gives him an A+, gives Pie (whose paper is much better) a C, and tells JJ "you got your A+, what's the problem?" JJ's father is racist and doesn't want him hanging out with Pie, but JJ's grandmother goes out of her way to be kind to him. Pie's blond, blue-eyed little sister is determined to be a breakdancer. A teen character is ostracized by family members because she's in a lesbian relationship. As co-author Lyn Miller-Elliot observes in the afterword, today JJ would probably be considered on the autism spectrum, but in 1982 he's a bullied "weird kid," whose experiences with loud noises, flashing lights, and other overwhelming sensory input are vividly described.
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Violence & Scariness
Physical and emotional violence are a constant low-level presence that occasionally explodes as kids get beaten up by bullying kids, their parents and substitute parents knock them around (sometimes for things they didn't do, not that they get any apology...), adults are beaten down by circumstance to a state of hopelessness, and in turn lash out at the vulnerable ones in their lives. An adult family friend punches a kid's stepfather for hitting the kid, and tells him he's dead if he ever lays hands on the kid again. JJ describes in detail a Basquiat painting in which a terrified goat is surrounded by knives, and Pie describes another in which a friend of Basquiat is being beaten to death by cops shown as pink pigs. In the past, a teen character important to Pie is fatally shot on the street.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Pie's mother has two children with different fathers, one of whom is her current boyfriend. Pie says of his father, seen only in a battered Polaroid, "nothing in his face in that moment suggests/ he's the type of dude to make a baby/ and then bounce but he did." JJ's older sister, a senior in high school, is in a lesbian relationship with her longtime BFF, which JJ discovers when he stumbles on them kissing. Pie has a crush on a girl his age -- and keeps it to himself so his pals don't make comments about her.
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Occasional "crap," "booty," Insults flung in several languages, and Pie's buttons are pushed when a bully calls his mom "loca" ("crazy").
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Products & Purchases
Scene-setting mention of brands current in the '80s, some of which are still with us, including Fender Telecaster, Casio, Walkman.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
One of Pie's relatives died of a drug overdose after coming home from the Vietnam war. Junkies and drunks are part of the neighborhood scene. Pie says, "little kids shouldn't have to see that mess/ sometimes I get so mad I feel/ like I'm about to explode." The punk zine Sniffing Glue gets a mention as the source for JJ's favorite Joe Strummer quote.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that betrayal, abandonment, and violence (physical and emotional) -- to say nothing of misunderstanding -- are a constant theme in Moonwalking and the frequent fate of the two middle-school protagonists of this pounding, angry, uneasy verse tale set in 1982 Brooklyn. Pierre, who goes by Pie and whose narrative is written by Zetta Elliott (Dragons in a Bag), is a biracial, brilliant Puerto Rican kid whose Black father from Congo disappeared before he was born and whose mother is waging a losing battle with mental illness. JJ, a White, self-described "weird kid" whose parents immigrated from Poland and lost everything in the air traffic controllers' strike, is written by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (She Persisted: Temple Grandin), who notes that today JJ would probably be considered on the autism spectrum. They're both beaten by bullying kids, adults, and a life that makes no sense. But they bond, warily, over art, as Pie's an aspiring graffiti artist and JJ a would-be punk rocker. There's death, racism, and prejudice everywhere you turn, with plenty of bad example from adults whose own lives are out of control so they lash out at others. There are also some wise, kind, souls, particularly Pie's aunt, JJ's grandmother, and the teacher who takes both boys under her wing and opens the world of art to them -- but it's not clear whether that will be enough.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
MOONWALKING opens in 1982 as Pierre, who goes by Pie, prepares to tag another building in Brooklyn, and JJ, along with his family, leaves their foreclosed home in Long Island and returns to his grandmother's Brooklyn basement. Pie is Puerto Rican, Black, brilliant, artistic, and angry. JJ is Polish American, nerdy, bullied, and also angry. They've both got plenty to be angry about, as Pie's father ditched his mom before Pie was born, his mom grapples with mental illness, his mentor was shot in the back, his Vietnam vet cousin died of an overdose, and junkies are just part of the landscape his beloved kid sister has to navigate. JJ was bullied in his old school, expects to be bullied in his new school, His embittered father tends to hit him first and ask questions later, and his parents are shunning his teen sister for being in a lesbian relationship. Pie finds solace and meaning in graffiti art, JJ in punk rock, and when they meet in middle school, there's the glimmer of a friendship. Whether it can get past the meanness, prejudice, misunderstanding, and racism of the world they're in remains to be seen.
Is It Any Good?
Zetta Elliott and Lyn Miller-Lachmann's angry, relatable dual-narrative verse tale finds two battered kids in 1982 trying navigate a life that frequently makes no sense. Set in the early days of hip-hop, punk rock, and graffiti art, Moonwalking brings its middle-school protagonists together from different worlds, bonding warily over art. There's a constant barrage of violence (murdered friends and drug overdoses in the past, parents who think nothing of smacking their kids around), racism, and general helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces, and also the occasional inspiring moment of getting past it. There's also quite a lot about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and early punk group The Clash, whose leader Joe Strummer's survival advice is a mantra for one of the characters:
"Joe Strummer said
you don't need talent
you don't need skill
all you need is a loud voice
an electric guitar
and a story."
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the historic and cultural events seen in Moonwalking. What impact did things like the air traffic controllers' strike, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the birth of hip-hop have on our lives today?
Leader of the 1980s Solidarity movement and later president of Poland Lech Walesa is a hero to JJ. Why did he feel inspired by the European political figure who fought for for workers' rights and social change?
In the afterword, co-author Zetta Elliott says, "After everything that happened in 2020, I couldn't write a conventional tale of interracial friendship. Happy endings are comforting, but I wanted my poems to provoke rather than placate." How did the George Floyd's death and the protests that followed affect her storytelling?
- Authors: Zetta Elliott, Lyn Miller-Lachmann
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Arts and Dance, Friendship, History, Middle School
- Character Strengths: Integrity, Perseverance
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date: April 12, 2022
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 10 - 14
- Number of pages: 224
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: June 1, 2022
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