Musical Youth byJoanne C Hillhuse
Caribbean Reads Publishing, 2014
Zahara is a lonely teenager trying to navigate her way through life after her mother dies in a car accident. She feels like a bother to her icy Granny Linda, who keeps all of her feelings bottled up inside. Instead of moping around, Zahara finds solace in music. No one talks about Zahara's absentee father or her mother so Zahara is left with that sinking feeling that emotions should be buried deep inside.
Zahara's life takes a new and exciting turn when a boy who calls himself Shaka enters the picture. Together, Shaka and Zahara form a special bond bridged by music in Joanne C Hillhouse's Young Adult (YA) novel Musical Youth. Winner of the second-place prize in the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean Literature Musical Youth succeeds in capturing teenage angst in a compelling and credible way.
Although the novel is set on the Caribbean island of Antigua, the themes of alienation, colour consciousness, loneliness and communication transcend Caribbean culture and appeal to any teenager who deals with the challenges of being between childhood and adulthood. It is a sensual novel that is age-appropriate.
Good YA literature–like Musical Youth–appeals to all readers and not just the YA age range which usually spans 14-22.
All-in-all Musical Youth is an entertaining read that reminds teenagers that they will survive their troubles. The writing is vivid; the characters are credible; the idea of using music as a thread to tie the characters together is brilliant.
Hillhouse captures the angst of teenage love without being sappy or condescending. The novel features an unspoken message about the importance of being exposed to all types of music. Music is like reading: the more you know of different genres, the more you experience about life.
Zahara expands her world as well as her relationship with people by learning about different music. She loves Buju Banton and Bob Marley's music. Her priest Fr Ellie teaches Zahara about jazz. Shaka likes hip hop, and his band, the Lion Crew, turn many popular songs into rockers. There is always something to discover in music and that becomes a metaphor for discovering what is new and exciting in life.
Music becomes an interesting motif on which to build both relationships and conflict. It is the bond between Shaka and Zahara, but it also becomes a source of tension as the two teens must face the challenges of coming out of their comfort zone personally and musically. Music drives a wedge between the two teens when Zahara suggests that Shaka could dig deeper into his music.
The teens' talent helps them to face the world, but it does not give them unshakeable self-confidence. Hillhouse explores this paradoxical situation with sensitivity and insight showing how even the most talented teens can struggle with self-confidence.
On another level, Hillhouse explores the concept of beauty and colour, all in a natural way that will help teens deal with these concepts and issues, especially in a Caribbean setting.
Musical Youth is a compelling read because Hillhouse has managed to make readers really care about the characters and their struggles. It is a deserving, prize-winning book that now comfortably claims its place in Caribbean Young Adult literature.