85 pages 2 hours read

Lisa Moore Ramée

A Good Kind of Trouble

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Lisa Moore Ramée wrote A Good Kind of Trouble on March 12, 2019, soon after the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was organized in response to police brutality against Black people. The realistic middle grade novel was featured as a selection for the School Library Journal’s Best Middle Grade Books 2019 and won the Black Caucus of ALA First Novelist Award in 2021.

A Good Kind of Trouble follows the growth of Shayla Willows, a Black seventh grader at Emerson Junior High. Shayla becomes more aware of racial injustice when a police officer is acquitted of shooting a Black man in the back, despite incriminating video evidence. She learns about the cause of Black Lives Matter, realizing that some trouble is a good kind of trouble. The novel explores themes of race, friendship, authority, and change.

Ramée writes the novel in first-person from Shayla’s perspective, including excerpts from Shayla’s journal. The author uses figurative language to help simplify the novel’s complex issues. Shayla’s school is named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century writer who heralded the idea that significant change comes from individual self-awareness and action; the protagonist’s character arc is, on one level, a movement toward this realization. Shayla gains awareness of her true priorities as she shifts her focus from getting a boyfriend to protesting against systemic racism. As her awareness grows, so does her bravery. Her character begins deeply afraid of trouble, but by the end of the novel, Shayla defies her principal to distribute Black Lives Matter armbands, demonstrating that sometimes standing up for what’s right requires standing against authority.

This study guide follows the 2019 Balzer + Bray print edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Black seventh grader Shayla Willows, who attends Emerson Junior High, is assigned to be lab partners with the school bully, Bernard, who is also Black. Shayla meets up with her Puerto Rican American friend, Isabella Alvarez, and her Japanese American friend, Julia, between classes. They call themselves the United Nations due to their racial diversity. They discuss Shayla’s lab partner assignment, and Shayla reveals to the reader that she wants her attractive classmate Jace Hayward to be her boyfriend. Shayla goes to PE class with her first Black friend, Yolanda. Coach West, the PE teacher and track team coach, invites Shayla to join the track team, and because Shayla is typically submissive to authority, she reluctantly agrees. As the only Black student in her English class, Shayla feels singled out when her teacher, Ms. Jacobs, references Black historical issues and the ongoing trial involving a police officer who shot a Black man in the back, as captured on video.

Isabella leaves school early, so Shayla and Julia sit with Julia’s Asian American friends at lunch. They watch another table play a game called Command, where one player can command another to do something. Shayla refuses to play; otherwise, she could be commanded into troublemaking, and she hates getting in trouble. In shop class, a boy named Tyler tries to flirt with Shayla, but she finds him repulsive. She later tells her family about an English class assignment: an “eyeball journal” in which she’s been assigned to record observations. Because the journal name is inspired by a work by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shayla’s father and older sister, Hana, argue that curricula should include more people of color.

The next day, Jace smiles at Shayla, but her excitement is overshadowed by envy when she sees Isabella’s changed appearance: Isabella is now beautiful, with her braces removed and eyebrows waxed. Shayla witnesses Jace bullying another classmate in the Command game at lunch, and she later seeks Hana’s advice about getting Jace’s attention. Hana offers her a Black Lives Matter armband, but Shayla fears that wearing it would cause trouble. Shayla later worries that the United Nations is splintering when Julia sits with her new friends at lunch. Wanting to be as pretty as Isabella and gain Jace’s attention, Shayla pressures Isabella into lending her a favorite top. However, when Jace compliments Shayla on her top, he asks about Isabella, which further divides the two friends. At track practice, Shayla learns she will be running hurdles and gets help from Angie, a member of the relay team. Angie and the relay girls are also Black, and Shayla isn’t sure how to fit in with them, though she wants to do so.

For the first time on Halloween, the United Nations don’t wear coordinated costumes, because Julia doesn’t think costumes are cool. Shayla dresses up as a Black Panther, an activist from the 1960s—but Julia dresses up as a superhero with her Asian American friends, angering Shayla, since Julia told Isabella and Shayla she didn’t want to dress up at all. Principal Trask forces Shayla to remove her costume due to its allegedly violent historical associations. In science class, Shayla and Jace are assigned as new lab partners, to Shayla’s great excitement. She trips over a hurdle at the preseason track meet but picks herself up and finishes the race. She laughs with the United Nations about her fall until a popular girl makes a rude comment; Julia laughs instead of defending Shayla.

At the winter dance, Jace tries to dance with Isabella, and Shayla lashes out at her. Tyler follows through with a game command to kiss Shayla—and to avoid Tyler, Shayla dances with Bernard, whom she realizes has feelings for her. She learns Julia and her new friends were the ones who commanded Tyler to kiss her, and she later discovers that Julia also encouraged Isabella to dance with Jace. Staying isolated during winter break, Shayla writes in her eyeball journal. She goes to the mall and runs into Coach West, who helps her realize she needs to repair her relationship with Isabella.

After seeing a protest outside the mall, Shayla asks Hana to explain the purpose of protesting. Hana invites Shayla to a silent march, where Shayla finds a sense of shared purpose and belonging. Afterwards, Tyler calls, and though Shayla cuts the conversation short, she returns to school to find Tyler acting as if they’re dating. At the break between classes, Shayla, Julia, and Isabella discuss their shared conflicts. Julia storms off, but Isabella and Shayla reconcile. When Shayla explains to Tyler that they aren’t (and shouldn’t be) in a relationship, she realizes she too has been pursuing someone who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. Jace sits with Shayla at lunch, but he only wants to talk about Isabella and complain about Shayla’s beloved history teacher, Mr. Powell. Shayla decides Jace is not boyfriend material.

The relay girls from the track team harass Shayla, accusing her of not liking Tyler because he’s Black and telling Shayla she looks down on her Black classmates. When one girl insults Shayla’s forehead (a point of insecurity), Shayla tries to fight them, which makes Angie laugh because she sees it as a stereotypical Black response. After track practice, Shayla is stunned to learn that the murderous police officer on trial was acquitted. Hana inspires Shayla to wear one of the armbands in support of Black Lives Matter; it stirs up reactions from classmates and teachers, and Shayla realizes she wants a Black friend who can relate to her.

Shayla begins to build a bridge towards Yolanda and Angie through the armbands. Principal Trask announces that wearing armbands will result in disciplinary action, but when Shayla learns of another officer shooting an innocent Black person, she decides the risk is worth it. The next day, Principal Trask warns Shayla she’ll be off the track team if she continues to wear her armband. Instead, Shayla later distributes armbands, inciting a Black Lives Matter rally at school. Principal Trask calls Momma to her office, but Momma defends Shayla and the protesting students.

At the last track meet of the season, one of the relay girls sprains her ankle, so Coach West asks Shayla to take her place. The girls win the relay, bringing Shayla a sense of belonging on the team. Shayla apologizes to Isabella for how she acted about Jace. Julia apologizes for her own mean behavior, and the United Nations is reunified. Shayla brings the United Nations together with Julia’s Asian American friends and the Black kids who sit at the basketball courts at lunch. Shayla reflects over her eyeball journal and realizes how much she has changed over the year, choosing to share the entire journal with Ms. Jacobs.

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