YA novel ‘Grown’ highlights the dangers for teenage Black girls in relationships with older men
This is Jackson’s fourth book, and in some ways it parallels her critically acclaimed previous novels. She deploys a thriller framework to lift up lives we don’t always see on the page, like the three Black teens trying to solve a murder and launch a rap star in Let Me Hear a Rhyme, or the missing Black middle-schooler in Monday’s Not Coming.
But that alone isn’t enough to earn its spot as one of independent booksellers’ top picks for fall. Grown is a cautionary tale with echoes that reverberate. It argues that Black girls suffer not just when older men take advantage of them, but also because no one believes them when they talk about it.
We know from Grown’s start that someone has murdered superstar Korey Fields. And suspicion centers on our protagonist, Enchanted “Chanty” Jones.
Chanty is undeniably talented onstage. The high-schooler wows the audience at auditions for Music LIVE, BET’s version of American Idol. But who she really wows is Korey, the Grammy-winning singer bestowing his fame on the event. Chanty can’t believe her luck when he compliments her audition song choice and her voice, and arranges for passes to his next concert.
“In fourth-period U.S. history, I’m busy doing math.
“Korey is twenty-eight. I’m seventeen. That’s only … an eleven-year difference. When I’m eighteen, he’ll be twenty-nine,” a lovestruck Chanty thinks.
“Beyoncé was eighteen when she met thirty-year-old Jay-Z.
“Mom is seven years younger than Daddy.
“It’s not that uncommon.”
She’s thrilled when Korey offers to mentor her. Their relationship quickly accelerates from crush to big promises to something insidious. Suggestions become orders, and by the time she’s on tour with Korey and his coterie of handlers, she’s cut off from her family, friends or anyone who might contradict the new rules that contain her existence. Jackson masterfully shows how an inexperienced teen can ignore or justify the first signs of grooming.
What Korey does to Chanty is terrible and even terrifying at times. But what’s equally bad is how she’s treated afterwards. Police repeatedly question her account. People assume she has a troubled background, even though her parents are married, she attends private school and she belongs to Will and Willow, a Black teen social group modeled on Jack and Jill. Friends and schoolmates steer clear, and commenters vilify her on the Internet. (Don’t ever read the comments, Chanty.)
“Pedophile? She was a GROWN ass woman.”
“So we just gonna jump and believe this girl?”
“You know there are three sides to every story: Her side, his side, and the truth.”
“Still, how many Black men are in prison because of something some chick said?”
The well-documented propensity to question those accusing powerful men of assault is amplified for Black girls, Grown shows us. “You’re just as bad as Korey with your brainwashing bullshit,” Chanty’s friend accuses the authorities.
Jackson notes in a prologue that while imprisoned R&B singer R. Kelly partially inspired Grown, this isn’t the R. Kelly story. She knows about these relationships built on an imbalance of power, because she’s been there too.
“My first boyfriend was twenty-two years old. I was fifteen. The greatest secret I ever kept,” she writes. “It was exciting and invigorating to be considered so beautiful and adult-like, but ultimately, I knew it wasn’t right–the sneaking around, the lying. Still, at that age, I should not have been the first to come to that conclusion.”
She recently released a video on Twitter that features her and fellow Black authors Dhonielle Clayton, Nic Stone and Ashley Woodfolk talking about their teen-age experiences with men who exploited the age difference. The video launches a #HeKnewBetter Twitter campaign that encourages other women to share similar stories.
Grown is “about adults who know the difference between right and wrong,” Jackson says in her letter to readers. “Because no matter where you stand on the issue … he knew better.”
(Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, Sept. 15, 2020)