First and foremost, let me say something before I begin, while I will obviously talk about the themes of What Makes us, by Rafi Mittlefehldt, because they are so intricate to what makes it riveting and timely.
I have a very real understanding of having to reconcile that I am not my father, nor do the sins of the father befall on me (let alone the sins of my family), no matter how I was judged by other or by myself. However, those sins centered around addiction, violence (towards us and, unfortunately the community).
However, as horrific as that was and that domino effect on my life continues still, to this day? That is not the narrative or experience of this story. And it is not my place to comment on these specific narratives. And so, I will not.
DO NOT take that silence as the type of silence that is an act of ignorance, which is ultimately support because it is the choice to ignore, not act and allow it to continue. Those who review this book from a place of similar experiences should have this space to raise their voices and I will not take that from them. That is the only silence you hear.
THANK YOU TO CANDLEWICK PRESS FOR AN ARC IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW
Structurally and in tone there is a very important part of What Makes Us that Mittlefehldt must be commended on. I have mentioned, a few times, my issue with dialogue in contemporary young adult books. It isn’t all of them and I don’t even know that it is the majority. However, when teenagers in contemporary books, aimed at teenagers, stop sounding like teenagers? You aren’t going to get buy-in from your core audience.
Throw in a novel dealing in racism, police brutality, shaming, personal property going viral and the consequences of ostracizing via judgement/isolation? If your main characters aren’t relatable then you lose the game before the first pitch is thrown.
Mittlefehldt never comes close to this line. Throughout What Makes Us, no matter what the emotionally charged situation or action initiated scene is acted out? Everyone remains true to their generation.
This doesn’t just ground What Makes Us in the contemporary genre in which it is written. It allows the generational divides and interactions that are so pivotal to both Jade, and Eran’s stories to ring with true authenticity. Without that, much of the impact around reconciling the past rather than letting it dictate who you are, and confining what you are, and not allowed to do to better the world, today?
Rather than it sounding like a push and pull between the past and the present? Rather than hearing the voices of multiple generations? The entire story would have sounded like a lot of adults sitting around at a bar having a debate over beer.
Another important piece that I want to point out about What Makes Us is that Mittlefehldt isn’t content to just hit on terrorism, privilege, how justice isn’t applied equally, homophobia and classism.
To drive home a butterfly effect of these horrific hate patterns, further ideas are addressed. Our society has become one of social media gone viral with a right to outrage, shame, bully and cancellation identity. Whatever you might do now? If someone sees something in your past? It is spread for the world to see and you aren’t even asked- it is just jury, judge and execute.
And in this case? Even if it is someone you didn’t even know was your father that was a terrorist? The results on your life, your person and everything you know can be taken from you in a snap. Despite your passion and action around the rights of others and equality for everyone, all that matters is that your father, that you never knew, was a terrorist.
When society should be supporting Eran in his questioning of himself. What might his father have passed upon him through genetics? Could his mother raised him past whatever might be in his DNA? Those feelings are terrifying and when he needs those that know him best, the most? They are questioning, judging and isolating him. Or parents are and his friends can’t not listen, can they?
That was an added dynamic to What Makes Us that I didn’t expect and it was something that made it an ever better book that I expected it to be. When you look at how easily it all unfolds from one protest incident escalating to the video that goes viral and then suddenly it all changes.
How you view yourself. How so many view you- not strangers, but people who KNOW YOU. Mittlefehldt weaves together these stories, themes and emotional fallouts into a powerful story that should not be missed and should be apart of high-school classes across the country.
What Makes Us Synopsis
A viral video reveals a teen’s dark family history, leaving him to reckon with his heritage, legacy, and identity in this fiery, conversation-starting novel.
Eran Sharon knows nothing of his father except that he left when Eran was a baby. Now a senior in high school and living with his protective but tight-lipped mother, Eran is a passionate young man deeply interested in social justice and equality. When he learns that the Houston police have launched a program to increase traffic stops, Eran organizes a peaceful protest.
But a heated moment at the protest goes viral, and a reporter connects the Sharon family to a tragedy fifteen years earlier — and asks if Eran is anything like his father, a supposed terrorist. Soon enough, Eran is wondering the same thing, especially when the people he’s gone to school and temple with for years start to look at him differently.
Timely, powerful, and full of nuance, Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel confronts the prejudices, fears, and strengths of family and community, striking right to the heart of what makes us who we are.
What Makes Us Book Links and Praise
Praise for What Makes Us
What Makes Us is a heart-stopping, heartbreaking read — a book full of heart. Mittlefehldt’s thoughtful, nuanced exploration of identity pulled me in from the very first page, and I could barely put it down. Eran’s story takes a universal coming-of-age theme — finding out your parents aren’t who you thought they were — to a tightly wound and thrilling extreme. Most important, this book provides satisfying, much-needed representation of a contemporary, complex Jewish teen and his family.
―Lisa Rosinsky, author of Inevitable and Only
Provocative. ―Kirkus Reviews
About Rafi Mittlefehldt
Rafi Mittlefehldt is a writer who has worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance theater critic, and children’s author. His debut novel was It Looks Like This. Rafi Mittlefehldt lives with his husband in New York City.
A Note from Rafi Mittlefehldt:
Shortly after the horrific Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, I read an article that mentioned one of the bombers having left behind a wife and three-year-old daughter. It was a throwaway line, but it stuck with me — I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl, who was too young to understand what had happened. When would she find out who her father was, and how would she process that? How would others react to learning about her family history? Would she keep it a secret? Would her mother?
What Makes Us began very simply as a story exploring those questions. But as I fleshed out the two main characters, Eran and Jade, their personalities took the story deeper, toward matters that are personal to me but relatable to so many. Eran’s volatility and tendency to react instinctively force him to confront issues of impulse control and anger management. And both characters’ uncertainty regarding their own pasts compels them to wrestle with self-determination and to ask, What makes a person? As the novel switches between Eran’s and Jade’s perspectives, we see them reluctantly frame and then try to answer this question, all against the backdrop of a community on the brink of chaos.
How to Find Rafi Mittlefehldt
What Makes Us Rafflecopter Giveaway
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