Brezenoff, Steve. (2011). Brooklyn, Burning. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Lab.
Brooklyn, Burning is an exquisite piece of literature with nuanced character development and beautiful cityscape descriptions. Themes of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, and parental neglect are woven throughout the characters’ lives without making the book a heavy-handed tragedy. Instead, plot points like drug overdose and food and shelter insecurity are incidents of day to day life; challenges, to be sure, but not focused on exclusively.
Kid, the protagonist, is never gendered. Brezenoff’s clever writing never trips up with awkward pronoun workarounds; the book flows seamlessly as if pronouns are simply unnecessary. Through interactions with parents and other adults, it becomes clear that Kid is gender non-conforming, but whether their identity is trans*, genderqueer, non-binary, or something else, the reader never finds out. I found myself wondering and looking for hints briefly, but then realized that it just didn’t matter. Kid’s gender non-conformity is a part of their identity and a significant theme throughout the story, but there is never a need for a label or pronoun.
This story is very place-based, and descriptions of city streets, landmarks, transportation, warehouses, and places of business are poetic without being flowery. The narrative is fictional but was inspired by a real event in a real neighborhood. I have personally never been to Brooklyn, but the writing transported me there. I suspect anyone who feels a connection to Brooklyn will find this book quite delectable.
Although there are many themes—homelessness, arson investigation, gender identity, acceptance, and chosen family—Kid’s story really centers on music and love, both of which are encapsulated in Scout, a likewise-ungendered street youth who comes into and enriches Kid’s life. The story is as multivocal and complex as Kid’s personality, and the plot is full without being distracting or overly busy. Brooklyn, Burning was a pleasure to read and I recommend it highly, especially to youth who have had to struggle with parental intolerance of gender or sexuality.
Author Steven Brezenoff did a lot of research for this book: he consulted LGBTQ and homeless advocate resources, some of which he shares in the author’s note and on his website; he researched the arson investigation the book is based on; and he lived in Brooklyn during his twenties and early thirties. His careful research shows in the level of detail and character decisions and struggles. Brooklyn, Burning was a Kirkus Best Teen Books of 2011 winner as well as the 2011 ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal winner.
For more information about the author, the book, and for a discussion guide, you can visit the website: http://www.stevebrezenoff.com/books/brooklyn-burning/