I want to thank Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal for creating believable heroines out of two genuine athletes who don't conform to the all the dusty stereotypes about cheerleaders. Much like they did in their blockbuster I'm Not Dying With You Tonight, the two authors present the stories of the main characters in Why We Fly along the same timeline, but from different points of view. And I absolutely loved them both, all the way through.
Eleanor "Leni" Greenberg is a flyer: the term used for a cheerleader who stands and performs stunts at the top of a pyramid. The book opens with Leni at physical therapy, as she is recovering from some pretty major head trauma after a bad fall. While there, she catches the eye of Franklin High's record-breaking quarterback, Sam "Three" Walters. He's sweet on her right out of the gate, and they flirt by challenging each other during workouts. Her improved stamina gets the doctor to approve Leni's readmission to the team for senior year, where she is almost immediately tapped as captain.
Chanel "Nelly" Irons is a base: one of the strong cheerleaders who creates a solid foundation for pyramids and stunts. This brilliant young Black woman has her head on straight and knows what she wants for her future. She has also been best friends with Leni since they were very small, close enough that they share pet names and a secret language. But once Leni becomes captain, Nelly realizes it's probably time to pull back and concentrate on her studies. Leni has depended on Nelly to pick up the slack for far too long. Plus, it's senior year, and overachieving Nelly is doubling down on her aspirations. She is a woman who gets things done!
About a third of the way into the book, we meet Cody Knight, Franklin High's previous all-star QB who went on to the big leagues — now in the news for taking a knee at games. Along the lines of Colin Kaepernick's activism, Cody's goal is to draw attention to the unequal, hateful, and violent treatment of people of color in America. But as happened with Kaepernick, many label Cody's actions a stunt that politicizes and pulls focus from the sport.
Inspired by Cody, and at the suggestion of the team, Leni leads the squad to take a knee during the national anthem at the first game of the season. There is an overwhelming positive response, which leads to student groups across the school and some of the players kneeling with them at the next game.
This time, the response is punishment: The squad gets banned from the field before the game. Nelly — and only Nelly — gets suspended from school for over a week, which will absolutely affect her college applications. The internet explodes with more trolls and hate speech than kudos. And Leni feels responsible, but she has no idea what should happen next.
What do you do when a moment from the heart turns into a viral sensation? Are you an ally or an accomplice? As a young person, how loudly are you willing to speak for your beliefs knowing your future might be in jeopardy? Is that even a future you want? And when the dust settles, will the same friends you've always counted on still be standing by your side?
Jones and Segal specifically chose to set this novel in 2019, before 2020's summer of social justice, but the timing doesn't make the messages any less impactful. Why We Fly isn't just about two young women who suddenly find themselves part of the national conversation, it's about athletics, debilitating injuries, slut shaming, institutionalized racism and, yes, even that tired old cheerleader stereotype.
I admit I was surprised by the book's ending, but I think I liked it all the more for that. The overall plot is compelling, the way Jones and Segal weave Leni's and Nelly's stories together is so masterful that I never forgot whose story I was in. Despite the myriad of ups and downs in this saga, the biggest takeaway from Why We Fly is one of hope for the future: May it inspire a new generation of energized young people to take their destinies in their own hands and to create the world they want!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.