Alissa Reviews: True Biz by Sara Nović

True Biz is Sara Nović’s latest novel, and takes the reader on an amazing journey. The story is told from the perspective of three narrators. One is February Waters, the headmistress at an Ohio boarding school for Deaf students. February is a hearing ally to the Deaf community, who grew up with a Deaf mother. The other two narrators are students, both of whom are Deaf but grew up with vastly different experiences. Austin is a well-liked student who has attended the school from a young age; he is “fifth-generation Deaf” and has been welcomed into the Deaf community from birth. Charlie is a transfer student who was raised by hearing parents who were encouraged to not teach Charlie American Sign Language, as it would confuse her and prevent her from relying on her cochlear implant. Unfortunately, Charlie’s implant has never worked well, so Charlie grew up without being able to communicate easily with anyone.

Charlie is at a disadvantage when she first arrives at River Valley School for the Deaf, knowing virtually no sign language. She flourishes quickly, eagerly embracing this opportunity to express herself and understand others. Nović gives the reader a sense of what it is like to be a Deaf student in a public school that is not equipped or overly interested in meeting the student’s needs. Charlie was placed in special education classes and generally left to fend for herself for most of her education until she arrives at River Valley.

This book shows that communication and shared language is integral for all of us. In the novel, Nović addresses the history of sign language, as well as the struggle for those who use Black American Sign Language to have it recognized. Some brief ASL lessons are included in between chapters, and each chapter begins with the hand sign of the narrator’s initial. The story strongly underlines the marginalization and neglect that so many students suffer when they are in schools and homes in which they are unable to communicate. This awareness is devastating to comprehend, and when the boarding school in the novel is threatened with closure due to funding, the reader shares the dread that the headmistress feels. Where will these students thrive? How will they manage to learn when they are surrounded by students and teachers who cannot communicate with them?

The title of the novel, True Biz, is an expression in ASL that means, “real talk,” and this book is filled with real talk. The characters are genuine and flawed, and they navigate their lives imperfectly. It shows the struggle between parents who want the best for their children, but do not always consider what their children think is best for themselves. We see teens who are taking in the world around them, and learning in the process where they are accepted, how they need to fight for what is important, and whom to trust. This is the best book I’ve read in years, and definitely in my all-time favorite, top ten list.