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Other Side of the Tracks
Table of Contents
About The Book
This “stirring…emotionally raw” (Publishers Weekly) young adult debut novel about three teens entangled by secret love, open hatred, and the invisible societal constraints wrapped around people both Black and white is perfect for readers of All American Boys and The Hate U Give.
There is an unspoken agreement between the racially divided towns of Bayside and Hamilton: no one steps over the train tracks that divide them. Or else.
Not until Zach Whitman anyway, a white boy who moves in from Philly and who dreams of music. When he follows his dream across the tracks to meet his idol, the famous jazz musician who owns The Sunlight Record Shop in Hamilton, he’s flung into Capri Collins’s path.
Capri has big plans: she wants to follow her late mother’s famous footsteps, dancing her way onto Broadway, and leaving this town for good, just like her older brother, Justin, is planning to do when he goes off to college next year. As sparks fly, Zach and Capri realize that they can help each other turn hope into a reality, even if it means crossing the tracks to do it.
But one tragic night changes everything. When Justin’s friend, the star of Hamilton’s football team, is murdered by a white Bayside police officer, the long-standing feud between Bayside and Hamilton becomes an all-out war. And Capri, Justin, and Zach are right in the middle of it.
IT’S FUNNY HOW A PERSON can live in new york their whole lives and never travel to the city. I’ve only been there once, when I was eight years old.
The night sky was painted with dark oil and hid the glittering stars I usually saw shining in Hamilton. My grandmother, who we called Ma, held my hand tight, and Justin, my older brother, held the other. Our mama, who we called by her first name, Essie, was making her way quickly ahead of us in her white peacoat with a matching fur band wrapped around her cropped hair. She seemed to dance with the crowds, weaving in and out of them expertly, with a careless smile, making sure not to shove nobody, gracefully leaping and spinning around each person she passed. She was like a young child, giggling and laughing the whole way to the theatre.
“Come on, slowpokes, this is the city. You have to move,” she called to us over her shoulder. Ma, hushing her, mumbled things under her breath that I couldn’t hear over the noise of the traffic, but even she was smirking the whole while. Essie was a real beauty.
I wanted to be just like her.
Essie had Justin when she was fifteen and me, just one year later. We all lived with Ma in Hamilton at first, but after Essie started her acting career, she was almost never home. Now, Essie was bringing us into her adopted home. Broadway didn’t smell like magic and new opportunities as Essie described; it was more like hot pretzels and perfume wrapped in a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. She said New York’s streets was paved with gold that glimmered brighter than the stones on the yellow brick road. I only found graying sidewalks with blackened gum and a few people wrapped in old blankets.
But the lights—the lights she didn’t get wrong. They did outshine the fireflies we caught behind Ma’s house in the summertime. Each theatre was playing, as Essie said, a different world for us to peek into; worlds of sadness turned happy, stories of love, music, and dancing. Essie said it was like visiting a magical library that opened its books for us to travel through, and it was. Each book lined the streets, illuminated with bright lights. Something Rotten!, The King and I, Hamilton, and Wicked!
Some of the names from the shows wasn’t familiar; others I’d already watched Essie act out for me in her bedroom, putting on different hats for the characters, singing their songs and proclaiming their lines like she was born into them. Even though I never been on the streets of Broadway before, I felt like I knew just as much about theatre as anyone else, including the old women I overheard talking about the different versions of Essie’s show they’d seen when Ma, Justin, and me sat in the theatre. They said they couldn’t wait to judge and see if it was better than the one in London that they’d saw that summer. That night, I didn’t need to see no show in London to compare to Essie’s.
I knew hers would be the greatest of all.
Essie told us we had great seats, but she didn’t tell us how great they actually were. We didn’t have nobody sitting in front of us but the orchestra. Ma even smiled when she saw the three reserved seats with our names written on them. It made me feel real important, like a star on television or something.
The conductor of the orchestra winked at me and told me my dress was the most beautiful thing he ever saw. I did feel beautiful in the bright blue dress Ma got from the charity store downtown. It was used, but Essie said used dresses wasn’t ever really old. My dress was new because it was the first time I wore it. She said it was my turn to create an adventure in the dress—that new adventures for an old dress was like retellings of old stories to ears that never heard them.
When the curtain lifted and the lights dimmed, Essie ran across the stage in tears, and I wanted to run up on stage and hug her. Ma could tell I was agitated and assured me Essie was only doing her job to entertain. Still, I believed everything Essie was saying under them bright lights. I believed her when she cried after burying her lover in the play, when she danced across the stage with the chorus, when she fell in love again, and when she died in the end. I believed it all and stood with the audience when they clapped. I agreed when the old ladies said this was the best version of the show they’d seen, even though I didn’t see no other one.
My Essie truly was a star.
Only three months later, when I found out Essie’s heart stopped onstage, I assured Ma that she was probably just acting. When her open casket sat in front of me at the church on Sixth Street later that week, I told Essie it wasn’t funny anymore. I told her she had to wake up now. Her skin was blotchy and the blush they put on her was too bright. She always told me the right shade of blush for her complexion was hard for people to find. That’s why she always did her own makeup before her performances.
They forced her eyes shut; no one was able to see the light that flew from them when she acted, sang, danced, or told her stories. Her lips were glued shut, hiding the smile that kept my heart believing in miracles. Her hands that once brushed my hair were frozen and stiffly folded over her thin body. I couldn’t look away.
“The show is over. Wake up,” I whispered, nudging her rock-hard shoulder.
“She’s dead,” Justin said, standing next to me. He was staring at her too, frozen just like me. “She not coming back, Capri.”
I looked around the church. It was small and cold. The sweater Ma made me wear was tight around my shoulders and didn’t shield my arms from the goose bumps that ran up and down them in waves. The pale gray paint on the walls was peeling, and the Black Jesus on the stained-glass windows turned ashy with dust. It smelled like mold. Flower spreads were scattered around with condolence messages on them, and everyone was wearing black, even Essie. This wasn’t the way her shows were. The theatre always had beautiful gold lights above. The seats were burgundy and comfortable, not hard like the brown pews we sat on. I looked again at Essie. How could someone who had so much life look so… imprisoned?
Ma didn’t think it was a good idea for Justin and me to ever go back to the city. It was because Essie was everywhere. The pictures from the shows she was in still littered the walls of almost all the theatres. A theatre in New York City decided to keep a billboard of Essie plastered to their side wall, in her memory. I only saw it that one time we went. Essie rushed us to look at what they’d done for her. In the picture, she was wearing a white dress with a crown of many colors, her legs stretched into a split leap. She was smiling wide, soaring across the sky like a rainbow.
Essie lived her life the way she wanted and died doing what she loved.
I always vowed somewhere inside of me, to do the same.
Reading Group Guide
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Other Side of the Tracks
By Charity Alyse
About the Book
Other Side of the Tracks chronicles the lives of three teenagers from two towns, one White and the other Black. Since their establishment, one unspoken rule has stood between the towns—don’t cross the tracks that divide them. From the all-Black town of Hamilton, siblings Justin and Capri both have big dreams of leaving, hoping to find the same joy of escape their deceased mother enjoyed as a Broadway performer. But Justin finds himself weighed down by expectations to protect and serve the women in his life, while Capri battles feelings of not being good enough. Zach, a Philly-raised transplant to Bayside, struggles with the reality of overt racism in his new home and the expectations for him to partake because of his whiteness.
Their worlds collide when Zach and Capri hit it off in a Hamilton record shop, owned by one of Zach’s favorite musicians. Together, they dive into making their dreams a reality, going against the longstanding rules and boundaries of their respective towns. But when a Black boy from Hamilton is killed on the Bayside end of the dividing tracks, bringing the tension between the communities to an ugly head, Zach, Capri, and Justin are caught in the middle.
1. In the book’s preface, the history of Hamilton and Bayside is shared, and toward the end, the present-day towns are described as having stayed “within the confines of a postbellum world.” Do you agree with this sentiment? Discuss why or why not.
2. In the book, we read a letter written to Justin and Capri’s father to their mother. Discuss the letter and how you feel it defines their relationship, their dreams, and the town of Hamilton. What, if anything, could Justin and his girlfriend, Rose, learn from Essie and Justin Sr.’s love story?
3. Throughout the story, characters from Bayside and Hamilton alike describe the other town and its inhabitants. What do you notice about the self-descriptions of the residents as compared to the descriptions of their neighboring town?
4. Though the McKulleys’ home burned decades before, the remains stand amid the other well-kept Bayside homes decades later. Discuss the symbolism of the McKulley family for Black and white passersby alike.
5. With Hamilton being such a close-knit small community, it is considered taboo for its residents to ever leave. The author reinforces this taboo with tragic endings for those who do leave the community in some way. Did you see the tragedies as happenstance? If not, what do you believe to be the connecting factor in the demise of those who leave Hamilton?
6. Who did you believe was shot the night of Tyree’s death? Why? Did your perspective on the incident change when you found out who it was? Why or why not?
7. Though Essie chose Broadway over raising her two children, Capri and Justin never seemed resentful of Essie or her choices. Why do you think this is? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
8. “Dancing is like breathing; it’s something I have to do to survive.” (p. 14) Can you relate to Capri’s deep love of dance? Discuss any hobbies or pastimes you have that you see as an integral part of who you are.
9. Even though Justin is the star basketball player, known for his athleticism, throughout the story we intermittently get glimpses of his relationship to words and literature. Discuss the use of basketball and literature and how they are used to explore the depth of Justin’s life.
10. In describing the social hierarchy of their school, Capri likens the students to carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores—each with their place in the food cycle. In your school environment, do you believe the same applies? If not, how would you describe the social norms of your community?
11. After Essie’s death, Justin was tasked with caring for and carrying his family through the tragedy. Discuss the impact of these expectations on Justin’s life. How might the story have changed if he didn’t have the weight of those expectations on him?
12. Tyree’s and Zach’s deaths marked the beginning of Hamilton and Bayside’s explicit reckoning with their long-standing history of racism and division. Why do you think this is? Do you believe that the residents of the two towns will experience a radical shift in their treatment and understanding of one another?
13. Other Side of the Tracks complicates Tyree’s death by giving insight into both sides of the story—those who were with and knew Tyree, and Officer Malore. Did this at all shift your perspective or understanding of the situation? Of other real-life tragedies of police brutality? Why or why not?
14. Despite Capri’s deep love of dance, she hides it from Ma. Why do you think Ma is so disapproving of Capri’s dancing? Can you empathize with Ma’s feelings?
15. Though he is not Black, outwardly Zach presents as Black, reflecting the culture and community he lived in in North Philly. Discuss your understanding of the relationship between race and culture. Do you see them as synonymous? Consider the various social scenes Zach encountered in Bayside and Hamilton.
16. Initially, Rose was optimistic that she and Justin could manage raising a child together, though ultimately she decided to move forward with joining the single mothers’ program in Connecticut. Explain you agree or disagree with Rose’s decision?
17. Despite living much of her life in Hamilton unnoticed, Capri is immediately seen and recognized by Zach when they meet in Easy’s shop. Discuss Zach and Capri’s relationship, and why you think they connected. Given Zach’s residence in Bayside, why do you think Capri was so trusting of him?
18. Reflect on the histories and trajectories of Justin’s, Capri’s, and Zach’s lives. Were you surprised by any of the outcomes?
19. Consider Easy’s music contest. Did you agree with his application criteria? Why or why not? Do you feel Zach was wrong in how he went about entering the contest?
20. Zach’s position becomes even more complicated when he realizes that his father is representing the police officer who killed Tyree. If you were in his position, how would you feel? Would you be loyal to your father and town, or to your romantic interest and the people of Hamilton?
21. When Zach arrived in Bayside, his father said to him, “‘I only have you for another year and I will use this year to show you who you really are.’” (p. 36) Discuss what you believe he meant by this.
22. Though secondary characters, Rose, Easy, and Thomas each provide a distinct perspective that gives insight into the thoughts and actions of Justin, Capri, and Zach respectively. Discuss the impact of these characters and how they drive forward the message of the story.
1. Epilogues are concluding portions of literature that often round out and bring closure to the piece. In Other Side of the Tracks, we close with a brief glimpse into the characters’ lives after Tyree’s and Zach’s deaths. Expand the epilogue by writing a three-part extension, each chapter from an additional character’s point of view. The epilogue should be related to the main story, but feel free to use creative license to explore and determine when in time you are writing from, and other details.
2. On your own or with a partner, research the history of your community, and consider the following questions:
a. What are the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups that historically have inhabited your town?
b. How have the relationships between the groups changed over time?
c. Are there any physical divisions in the groups that inhabit your city or town like the railroad between Hamilton and Bayside?
Then create a visual representation of your findings and share them with the rest of the group.
3. Design a record cover for one of the characters in Other Side of the Tracks. On the back side of the cover, create a playlist (4–6 songs) that encapsulates the emotions and journey of one of the book’s characters.
On a separate piece of paper or document, write a rationale that addresses the following:
a. Why did you choose the character you did?
b. How does your design of the record cover express and convey your character of choice?
c. Give a 2–3 sentence description of why each song has been included in your playlist. Include a moment or scene from the text that inspired each song selection.
4. Zach, Justin, and Capri each explored and expressed their emotions and desires through art, whether music production, literature, or dance. Express yourself through a piece you create in an artistic medium of your choice. If it’s a performance piece, such as a song, spoken-word piece, or dance, please limit your work to three minutes. Write a one-page rationale that explains your piece and why you chose the medium you did. Be prepared to share your work with others.
Extend the Experience
Read more like Other Side of the Tracks:
Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Note: Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition of this title.
Melanie Kirkwood Marshall holds a BA in Secondary English Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a M.Ed in Reading Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught in many learning contexts from High School ELA teacher to Primary Literacy Interventionist. Currently, Melanie is completing her doctoral studies in Multicultural Children’s Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
- Publisher: Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (November 22, 2022)
- Length: 448 pages
- ISBN13: 9781534497719
- Grades: 7 and up
- Ages: 12 - 99
- Lexile ® 770L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
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Raves and Reviews
"This excellent narration encapsulates teen love, the harsh realities of racism, and peeks into the world of teens today. Both heartbreaking and inspiring, this stunning debut will give readers much to discuss and debate."
– -School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW, 1/1/2023
"Alyse’s debut novel holds the perfect elements to create a fresh spin on star-crossed romances, while still offering sharp commentary on relevant social issues."
– -Booklist, 11/01/2022
"This emotionally raw volume juggles interracial dynamics and themes of appropriation, identity, and systemic racism."
– -Publishers Weekly, 10/17/2022
"An interesting look at the many forms activism can take."
– -Kirkus Reviews, 10/1/2022
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