1994 was a huge year for me. I was fifteen and, looking back, I feel like that was the year I broke free from my cocoon of childhood. Music played a large part. I had two older brothers. We watched a lot of MTV. I distinctly remember the moments that stirred my emotions on several occasions that year: seeing for the first time Nas's “The World Is Yours,” Ahmad's “Back in the Day,” and Wu-Tang Clan's “C.R.E.A.M.” '94 was also the year I began to take notice of 2Pac. 2Pac's music hadn't hit me hard all of a sudden like the others; however, by the following year, no other rapper compared.
I expected to find some of the nostalgia of those years in Jacqueline Woodson's After Tupac and D Foster. Here's a novel set during that period, a young adult novel that uses Tupac Shakur as a central image. I expected something from this novel—something very poetic and edgy, something contemporary, something like the feeling of emergence, something familiar—but what I got instead was something else entirely.
If this novel reminded me of anything, it was of that time prior to emergence. It reminded me of playing with friends on the school playground, running around the neighborhood, and of my elementary school library. It reminded me of Judy Blue. Not the nostalgia of Yo! MTV Raps, Fresh, or even Skee-Lo. No—Judy-freakin-Blume. Now on the surface, this may seem like a poor comparison. Any time Blume is mentioned, my first thought has always gone to the hilarious Fudge. But Blume wasn't always so humorous. Ignore that hilarity from Blume for a moment and what do you have? Socially conscious fiction. Subjects considered taboo for children. And at its core, a tale of friendship. All things you find in After Tupac and D Foster.
Now, I haven't read a lot of Blume. And this is the first work I've read from Woodson. So I wondered if the comparison was way off. I turned to Google: Woodson cites Blume as a major influence; Blume and Woodson were both born on February 12 (astrology everyone!); Blume is actually Woodson's mother (okay, I made that one up). Maybe not enough to convince the masses, but I'm sticking by it.
So with the Blume comparison in mind, I’m a little shook by this Young Adult label. With its largely simple plot, its focus on friendship and skipping rope, this novel brings to mind the books a ten or eleven year old would read. But I guess this label probably has to do more with content. After Tupac...may be a little too edgy for your average school librarian. Still, despite my opinion that this book is rather juvenile, it does have a little bit of depth to it and is certainly not an entirely light read.
As a fan of Shakur, I turned to this book hoping to find something I'd left in my teenage years. It's not in here. Frankly, I feel the Shakur connection to the novel is weak. It adds a few parallels for the story of D Foster, but largely I think it detracts from the novel. The characters try to convince me that they are passionate about Shakur and his life, but their dialogue around him feels more like a Wikipedia entry, not someone closely following his status. Then it hit me: Woodson, born in 1963, an author from a generation before Tupac, is writing to a generation that came after. Perhaps the stilted references to Shakur were a lack of generational understanding on the author’s part (though I don’t think this is entirely true of Woodson), or they could’ve been an attempt to speak to a generation that wouldn’t relate to the passion. For someone who was especially shaped by those years, such as myself, the sentiment is misplaced.
Still, I liked this book and I think it has so much to do with that earlier nostalgia, that of reading Judy Blume for the first time. It's refreshing to see that a new author has been handed the torch and is carrying on the legacy. Who would I recommend this book to? That’s a tricky one. The content, the maturity, the scope, the literary merit—they’re all over the place and point to different audiences. Looking at everything, I think After Tupac and D Foster can appeal to readers in several groups, but would probably be most appreciated by those very mature readers in upper elementary or middle school. And if Judy Blume herself hasn't read this book yet, I think she should.