YA Review: The Stars Beneath Our Feet

Wallace (Lolly) Rachpaul feels a "joy-grabbing stone" in his chest. His older brother, Jermaine, was shot and killed at a nightclub a few months back and Lolly, heartbroken, keeps erupting in anger. "Despondent" is how Mr. Ali, the social worker at his afterschool program, describes him. Lolly is scared, too. Living in the St. Nick projects in Harlem, he's always on guard: "Where I live," he thinks, "it's all about borders. And territories. And crews." When he was younger, he could walk anywhere, but now that he's 12, the neighborhood divisions have become sharper. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood are pressuring Lolly and his best friend, Vega, to join a "crew," but what Lolly really wants to do is stay under the radar and keep working on the one thing that, as he says, "Makes me me": Legos.

Following the kit instructions to the letter has always been important to him, but on the first Christmas after Jermaine's death, "something had grabbed on to [him]" and he throws all his carefully built Lego buses, buildings and airplanes onto the floor and begins creating cities without his beloved blueprints. When his mother's girlfriend starts bringing home garbage bags full of cast-off Lego bricks from her custodian job at a toy shop, Lolly's ambitions--and his city--grow.

Soon, thanks to Mr. Ali's kind intervention, he moves his building site to an unused storage room at the community center. Alone in the room, he finds a measure of peace for the first time in months. "I was creating my own new world and getting lost in it," he says. When a girl he and his classmates call Big Rose shows up at the door one day, wanting to build, too, Lolly is furious: "My world felt hijacked." Building Legos has always taken Lolly "to that spot a long time ago" when his family was still intact. Little by little, though, with Rose on her side of the room and Lolly on his, he finds that it might not be so bad to share his passion for building--or even for a future that does not involve becoming a member of a gang. His new approach to designing structures from scratch, inspired by his travels through New York City to visit the buildings he reads about in a book about architecture, starts to carry him toward a future that has more hope and possibility than he imagined.

David Barclay Moore's magnificent debut novel, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, is named for the glittery stars on the sidewalk Rose creates in her perfect replica of the projects, representing the lives lost in their community to drugs and despair. Rose frequently repeats, almost chanting, the words her grandmother once told her: "Your mama, your daddy--they were buried under the ground, but they're stars now, girl, stars beneath our feet." But this is a story about making choices. "The folks you hang out with can raise you up or bring you down low," Lolly discovers. It's up to him to choose. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: After his older brother is killed, a 12-year-old boy uses his love of building with Legos to deal with the strain of living in a Harlem neighborhood fraught with drugs and gangs.

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