This powerful and diverse book will inspire young readers to stand up for what they believe in, to believe in themselves, and to fight for justice. Perfect for teens finding themselves—and tentatively writing poetry—during the era of Me Too and Black Lives Matter.
Lisa J. Lickel –
“It is completely refreshing to read a book about a good kid making restitution for doing a bad thing while figuring out constructive ways to deal with injustice. Chicago high school sophomore Cole Renner come to grips with the fact that he is not going to change the world all at once, but that he can and should make a difference in his own environment.
Barbara Gregorich uses her experience as an activist and love of sports to create a marvelous cast of eclectic teachers, staff, students, and parents in this street-level view of precarious teen life in contemporary Chicago. Cole is beyond frustrated when his father receives jail time for leading a protest against closing a local public elementary school. “All this over a grade school,” Cole thinks. It’s one more event in a long list of frustrations over inequality, petty revenge, getting dumped by his girlfriend, and upside-down thinking he encounters in his life. Taking out his anger at the “system” by tagging the school with a vulgarity one night at the beginning of the school year, he’s caught in the act by his English teacher who happens to be in the neighborhood. Quick and creative thinking combine to form an unusual punishment. Cole shows his quality of character by taking to heart and learning from this unique assignment of creating at least two poems a week featuring a word that begins with the letter F for the remainder of the school year.
Cole’s journey of self-discovery involves applying cross-country running advice from an empathetic coach, the deep love of his parents, the experience of visiting his father in the Cook County jail, watching his mother learn how to cope with brief single parenting, and from his boss at his afterschool job at a greenhouse. During an event in which Cole supports his friend Felipe’s class presidency campaign, Cole observes that Felipe is breathing “like he’s in a race. Then I realize he is. Not an actual race, but a race to represent tenth graders. To argue for what he believes in.”
We eventually learn why Cole’s English teacher is willing to risk his career by misleading the school’s principal about who vandalized school property when Cole must trust him with another problem. Empathetic educators help Cole “switch on all the bright lights.” Cole is challenged by the principal who thinks but cannot prove he is the one who tagged the school, and continues to harbor a grudge for Cole’s actions the previous year of protesting standardized testing. Cole’s sense of social responsibility takes on new meaning when not only is his chance at a college scholarship threatened, but so are his friends when the realities of illegal immigration affect them all.
Later, Cole is asked about his poetry assignment and confesses the poems he writes “let me say how I’m feeling, and they make me think.”
The F Words is an enlightening book for middle and high school. While it does contain limited and mild appropriately situational cursing, I recommend it, especially to foment family discussions on social justice and youth activism.”
“The F Words is a fantastic YA novel. The story, set in Chicago, follows Cole, a high school student, who’s having a hard time. His dad is in jail. He’s frustrated. In a moment of anger, he vandalizes the local school, painting the F word on the outside walls. His English teacher catches him, and instead of seeking suspension, the punishment is much more creative: Cole will have to write two poems (about other F words) each week. The novel sets off from here and goes on to tackle complex race and cultural issues. The cast is diverse. The plot is engaging throughout. The book feels timely and important, teaching about the power in and need for activism.
I appreciate how Gregorich uses poetry inside the novel. This adds another depth to the experience of the whole book.
The F Words isn’t just a good book, but it’s also an important one. High school teachers in particular should seek out this one for their classrooms. It’ll certainly be on my bookshelf—if students will put it down, that is.”
Linda Loew –
“I loved this book! It kept me on my toes, looking around the next corner, waiting to hear the bullhorns and the sound of marching protestors approaching. If you’ve ever walked a picket line or carried a protest sign, pumped your fist in the air against injustice and for a better world, you’ll probably feel a surge like I did as the main character Cole, a 10th grader, and his friends & family navigate not just the halls of their high school, but the streets of their Chicago neighborhood.
Cole’s father is a political prisoner in Cook County jail, for his role in leading a struggle against school closures. Cole’s best friend Felipe runs for class president on a social justice platform, while ICE agents patrolling the streets are a constant worry to their classmates. Cole faces many challenges besides getting in trouble for tagging F Words on the school wall.
The F Words are not just what you might think…they’re a jumping off point for much more, from Fortitude to Fury, from Fist to Fire, from Fear to Fighting back…to Friendship.
Besides the physical action, from cross country running, to protest marches, there’s the mental action, the intellectual and cultural growth reflected in Cole’s poems. There’s a great deal more to identify with from tacos to home baked pies. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a high school student yourself, I highly recommend this YA novel to everyone, young and older “”youth.”” There’s something for all of us!”
S. Katz –
“I thoroughly enjoyed this fast paced YA novel. Pertinent for teens today but also good reading for an old fogey like myself.
The book has likeable, engaging characters who encounter the unfairness of life and figure out how to protest and deal with it.
The poetry Cole, the main character, writes as a “”punishment”” adds to the story. This book should give teens a lot to think about, whether they agree with it all or not. Hopefully it will spark some worthwhile conversations with others. 5 stars from me!”
I noticed the effortless way the author handles the mixture of Spanish and English when bilingual characters and their friends communicate. In a process called: “code switching,” Spanish words are often inserted into predominantly English dialogue especially when emphasis or emotion are needed. In fact, although the vocabulary of the entire novel is easily accessible, it always shows a reverence for words and their meanings.
A boy, infuriated with injustices in his world and community, learns how to fight back.
Cole Renner is a White sophomore at August Mersy High School in Chicago. His principal has labeled him a troublemaker for daring to take action against injustices—just like his father, who is currently a prisoner in Cook County Jail after leading a protest to save a neighborhood public school. Struggling with his father’s recent sentencing, Cole lashes out and spray-paints the F-word multiple times on school property. Caught by Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, he is offered a choice: face suspension or clean it off and write two poems every week about other words starting with F. Choosing the latter option, Cole writes about the injustices that surround him and his schoolmates, who are of diverse cultural backgrounds. Despite his initial reluctance, he finds solace in poetry, and it becomes an outlet for each new wrong that Cole and those he cares about face. The teen characters’ discussions of issues such as deportation and racism may inspire young readers who are fed up with witnessing inequities, though this first-person novel tackles many concepts in its five-month timeline, causing events to be rushed and detracting from some of their impact. However, the author admirably showcases the power young people hold when they come together and speak out against a biased system.