Latoya, the heroine of Randi Pink’s debut YA novel, Into White, hates everything about herself. She’s one of just a handful of black students in a big high school in the Montgomery, Alabama, suburbs. She and her older brother, Alex, don’t fit in anywhere: both the black clique and the white students bully them. Toya is embarrassed by her nerdy brother, her bickering parents, and the “Empty Castle” where they live. (Her father spent the family’s every penny to move them into an upscale neighborhood, and there’s no money left for furniture, clothes, or any of the other necessities that would help them fit in.) Most of all Toya hates herself.
With no fairy godmother in sight for this modern-day Cinderella, Toya turns to prayer:
“Hey Jesus?” I whispered, looking out of my bedroom window. “I can’t take this anymore. This filth. This curse. This … race. … You said that if I seek you first, the rest shall be added to me. Well, my rest is the power to wake up any race I want. Please, Lord, anything but black.”
The next morning Toya wakes up, looks in the mirror, and sees a drop-dead gorgeous girl “as white as a Bing Crosby Christmas.” She’s blond, bosomy, and athletic, and she has ice-blue eyes like the sky. “Hallelujah,” she says to the mirror. Toya’s family still sees her real self, but everyone else sees Katarina, the new exchange student from Kansas City. Everyone except Jesus, of course, who drops in occasionally to see how things are going.
Naturally things aren’t going that well. The cool kids immediately embrace Katarina, but their shallow, backstabbing world is definitely not as fabulous as Toya had expected. She gets exactly the notice she dreamed of from the to-die-for quarterback, but that too comes with a terrible price. To stay in with this in-crowd, Toya has to abandon her brilliant, loyal brother. And that nearly breaks both their hearts. Even Jesus can’t fix the problem. Toya has to work that one out for herself:
“He knuckled my tear away from my cheek before I realized it was there. ‘You begged me. You cried, screamed, yelled, and cursed for years, Latoya. I said no well over a thousand times, and then we gave you what you asked for. Exactly what you asked for. Unfortunately, sometimes what we want is not necessarily what we need.”
Into White’s examination of the still-boiling racism and misogyny in America is timely, but Toya’s painful struggle toward self-acceptance is tempered by Pink’s light style. Pink herself says she did not read a novel until she was seventeen, and Toya’s budding awareness of a wider world beyond the confines of high school rings with the authenticity of the author’s own transitions.
Into White grew out of Pink’s participation in a 2013 graduate-level class in writing for children at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. “I began writing this book because it needed to be written,” Pink writes on her website. “I finished writing this book because I knew no one else would.”
Lyda Phillips is a veteran journalist who grew up in Memphis and has earned degrees from Northwestern, Columbia, and Vanderbilt universities. The author of two young-adult novels, she worked for United Press International before returning to Nashville.