The Black Girls Left Standing by Juliana Goodman leans on the grittiness to tell the story of a Black girl living in the Chicago projects searching for why her unarmed sister was killed outside the home of a police officer.
Sixteen-year-old Beau Willet is trying to overcome the disbelief of attending her older sister Katia’s funeral. She wears a memorial sweatshirt in honor of her 22-year-old sister, who was killed by a single gunshot wound to the face fired by an off-duty police officer outside of his home in the middle of the night. Katia was accused of planning to rob the home, but Beau doesn’t accept that narrative. She depends on her friend Deja to help her figure out what happened to Katia, who was with her boyfriend Jordan at the time of the killing. Except Jordan has been missing since Katia’s death, and he is the only person who could clear Katia’s name.
I should be crying, too, but I can’t for some reason. It’s like my ducts are all blocked up and the tears are dripping down my insides instead of my cheeks. Katia, why didn’t you just stay home with me instead?
Beau knows the police department and the city will not investigate her sister’s killing fairly because she’s Black, her sister was Black, and they’re from the impoverished Grady Park neighborhood where Black people get killed all the time. Katia’s death is in the news cycle for what feels like a second until the rest of the city moves on and feels sympathy for the police officer and his family instead of Beau and her family. To get the answers she needs, Beau is determined to find Jordan. She feels alone in her quest when it comes to her family, her parents too depressed to push for more answers while trying to keep the roof over their heads. Deja seems occupied in a new relationship to help Beau solve the crime, and Beau feels guilty pulling Deja into her web of grief. While she’s looking for Jordan, Beau finds herself falling for Champion, a boy she goes to school with though he lives in a McMansion in the affluent Purple Hills neighborhood.
Everything’s all screwed up between me and Champion because I’m the girl with the murdered sister. Neither of us says it, but if he asked me to be his girl now, everyone would think it’s because he feels sorry for me.
As Beau and Champion become more than friends, Beau finds herself and her friends engaging in petty fights with girls and guys in Grady Park who may or may not know what really happened to Katia. Nobody is snitching. Then Beau gets an anonymous tip that Jordan is in her apartment building complex. At first, she doesn’t believe that rumor because she knows everyone in the complex and hasn’t seen anything amiss; she swears she would’ve noticed Jordan by now, better yet someone would’ve been loyal to her and told her about his whereabouts.
While Deja seems to fade into her relationship, Beau taps Sonnet, another friend who uses her Pretty Little Liars knowledge to play detective. Sonnet lives a life more similar to Champion’s, so Beau feels immense pressure to protect Sonnet and herself. The guilt of Beau’s grief ebbs and flows as she leans on the friends not used to the atmosphere of the projects she lives in. The deeper they get into their investigation, the higher the stakes are. Blindly, Beau follows every clue until she finds herself in trouble to the point she may meet the same fate Katia did.
Being inside Beau’s mind from the first-person perspective is incredible as she pushes aside the grief and depression of losing her sister while looking for answers for why her sister died at the hands of a gun fired by an off-duty police officer. Why was Katia outside this officer’s home at 4 a.m. with Jordan? Why did Jordan disappear? The questions resound throughout the pages as Beau tries to unwrap the mystery in her crime-ridden neighborhood where asking such questions about why someone was killed could get you killed. When Beau is in the bedroom she shared with Katia, the gloom overwhelms her as she looks through her sister’s belongings for any clues, but she only finds what could’ve been Katia’s destiny. The plans for the future seem to be the only clues Katia left behind, and it strengthens Beau more in doing the work the police won’t do.
Overall, this young adult novel stands out with the reality of being a Black kid in the inner city and feeling like you, anyone who looks like you, and anyone you love doesn’t matter. Beau knows her sister’s killing will never get a fair investigation because Katia was accused of burglarizing a police officer’s home. But she knows her sister wouldn’t commit such an act, so she’s the only one who could stand up for Katia. Beau and her friends are the Black girls left standing who have to stand up for the Black girls who don’t make it out of places like Grady Park. In the audiobook version, narrator Ariel Blake does a fantastic job of conveying the sadness and determination in Beau’s voice. Out of similar works such as Angie Thomas’ books set in the similar fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights in The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, and Concrete Rose, Juliana Goodman’s debut novel makes a splash in the subgenre of social justice YA with digging into the mental health aspect of showing the tumultuous journey of the teenage main character struggling with how society paints girls like her, including her dead sister, and trying to prove that they deserve to be seen like any other girls.