I loved Bitter by the end of its second paragraph.  The book made an instant impression and sustained it brilliantly. Given its immediate impact, one of my earliest, but admittedly uncritical thoughts was this: “this book does not mess about; will that do as a review?” Sometimes we over-complicate things and one of the chief reasons I might recommend Bitter is down to the way it gets cracking with rich storytelling and intelligent, intriguing characterisation from the off.  Chapter 5 was a particular stand out for me in this respect, taking us deep into a complicated, illuminating and challenging realm of conflicting emotions and motivations.

Bitter looks long and hard at what it means to actively resist oppression and systemic racism and takes stock of the ways by which these forms of resistance exert deeply personal costs. Central to this is the titular character, Bitter, who agonises over her own role in this resistance.  Working as a mixed-media painter, Bitter develops her craft in a somewhat shielded school for the artistically gifted.  From this partially safe space, Bitter worries at the limits of her own contribution to the fight that is being fought by some of her closest friends.  Without wishing to spoil the book for anyone, a movement into magical realism provides a means to explore the role that Bitter’s art plays in the fight for social justice.

Bitter is a book with extremely interesting things to say, interesting people saying these things, and strikingly interesting creatures to add a whole other dimension by which to explore the arising themes and concerns of the book.  It’s a prequel to the book Pet, which I hadn’t read prior to my encounter with Bitter.  Chronologically, I’ve been reassured that that does not matter, but this order of reading did occasionally matter to me. As I read this earlier story, I couldn’t help wonder whether I would have enjoyed Bitter even more if I had read Pet first. I’ll never know which way is best, but if nothing else, I know I will be reading pet imminently. I haven’t checked.  It’s a further endorsement that I had bought Pet after reading only a couple of chapters of Bitter. I knew I would want more.

Bitter is a more grown-up read than the titles I have previously reviewed for this site. It does have swears – an instant red card for younger readers in many quarters. It does have upsetting accounts of the personal toll of fighting oppression, and economic and political violence. It does speak of the scars of fighting for equity.  Fighting for safety.  Fighting for life. As such, it’s clearly being positioned as a Young Adult novel.  I’m quite happy with it being seen as such, though I sometimes worry about referring to age when talking about books.  Such matters are blurry.   I can’t help thinking about the current sweeps of book banning that we are seeing reported in the US. When I think of some of the most thematically challenging books I read at around the age of eleven, and the absolute good they did me, I think of how they offered the sort of material that some ‘concerned citizens’ would find problematic.  At the very least, I despair at what some of the most mature, demanding readers are being denied in parts of the world, right now, at an increasing pace, just as I type.

We are seeing books under attack for all kinds of no-good-reason; books that aren’t actually in the business of manufacturing outrage or trauma.  Deeply smart books that engage with troubling – let’s be honest, pretty urgent – matters, and that respect both the reader’s intelligence and their reasonable expectation to feel safe enough to move on to the next chapter.  Bitter is one such book.  It’s a book that might upset, for different reasons in different places, and as such it’s a book that we might need to keep a protective eye on. Not so much to protect young readers, more to protect the book itself from the unduly concerned. It looks structural racism in the face and allows a multiplicity of characters, all agents of change, to have their highly individual, often clashing perspectives given space. Space to not just be represented but also to shift and develop, and to be both nuanced and surprising or challenging

I won’t linger too long on some personal reasons for further, deeper love of the book – but let’s just say it references Gwendolyn Brooks and I adore Gwendolyn Brooks’ work.   In this case, Bitter offers a repeated reference to a singular, powerful sliver of her output:

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

What does it mean to be a part of each other’s business? What does playing a part look like?  And how does that feel? Those are the real questions, I think, that Bitter offers up.  And in seeking the answer, it refuses to pander or patronise or simplify to any harmful degree. That is one of the highest recommendations I can offer for this strange and urgently familiar magic-weaving book. To be briefly practical, I think this book would work well as a complement to something like Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together in later KS3/KS4.  Both offer rich avenues for exploration, in which to consider, discuss and interrogate what it means to stay true to your sense of self when meeting the collective challenges of the world face on.