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Every Body Looking

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Notes From Black Reads

Every Body Looking is an intense yet beautiful coming-of-age tale written in verse about a young Black woman on a journey of self-exploration. Ada’s story alternates between the past and present day, giving readers insight into how her childhood traumas and conservative familial expectations help shape her decisions as a freshman in college. A powerful and relatable read for many.

A Finalist for the National Book Award

When Ada leaves home for her freshman year at a Historically Black College, it’s the first time she’s ever been so far from her family—and the first time that she’s been able to make her own choices and to seek her place in this new world. As she stumbles deeper into the world of dance and explores her sexuality, she also begins to wrestle with her past—her mother’s struggle with addiction, her Nigerian father’s attempts to make a home for her. Ultimately, Ada discovers she needs to brush off the destiny others have chosen for her and claim full ownership of her body and her future.

“Candice Iloh’s beautifully crafted narrative about family, belonging, sexuality, and telling our deepest truths in order to be whole is at once immensely readable and ultimately healing.”—Jacqueline Woodson, New York Times Bestselling Author of Brown Girl Dreaming

“An essential—and emotionally gripping and masterfully written and compulsively readable—addition to the coming-of-age canon.”—Nic Stone, New York Times Bestselling Author of Dear Martin

“This is a story about the sometimes toxic and heavy expectations set onthe backs of first-generation children, the pressures woven into the familydynamic, culturally and socially. About childhood secrets with sharp teeth. And ultimately, about a liberation that taunts every young person.” —Jason Reynolds, New York Times Bestselling Author of Long Way Down

ISBN-13: 9780525556220

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication Date: 09-21-2021

Pages: 416

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

Candice Iloh (they/them) is a first generation Nigerian-American writer, teaching artist, and youth educator. They are a graduate of Howard University and hold an MFA in writing from Lesley University. Their work has earned fellowships from Lambda Literary and VONA among many others. Their debut novel, Every Body Looking, was a finalist for the National Book Award and earned a Michael L. Printz honor.

Read an Excerpt


Just look at me

they got me out here

wearing a dress



hope Mama’s proud

she sure does look like it

looking at me and squealing

like proud mamas do when

their baby looks something

like she came from them

her squeals bounce

from every wall of this hotel lobby

her screams shake from

her fragile body exploding

like she’s shocked by her own joy

unsteady heels click

against the tile toward the person she can say

was the best thing she ever did

with her life

Here’s the scene: I’m seventeen and graduating

from high school

and this weekend I learn to juggle

my father and his new wife

are on their way to the Home of the Chicago Doves

decked out, like they’re about to glide down the church’s red carpet

him in his crispiest suit, her bulging from a flowered dress

my baby brother dressed

as Dad’s mini identical twin

belted in the back seat

of my father’s golden Toyota Camry

is giddy knowing nothing

about what day it is

or how his big sister

will survive it

after picking up her own mommy

keeping her seated somewhere

she can fidget

far from his side of the family

Mama fidgets

in my passenger seat

more on edge than me

maybe cause it’s been

like five years since we’ve seen

each other but she is here

scoffs under her breath

thinking, just like her

this hoopty is proof

of yet another thing

I don’t need

shrugs away small thoughts

not knowing

Dad demanded

I save and buy my first Camry


sits and tugs

at her lopsided wig

pulls down the mirror

reapplies bloodred lipstick

smudges some on her cheeks

with her fingers

and I thank god knowing

without this

I may not

recognize her

We pull into my high school’s parking lot

for the last day I will ever have to smile at these people like I ever belonged here / for the ten minutes it takes Mama and me to get to the stands along the football field, a place she has never seen / I imagine the sounds of our heels to be / like a song we are for once dancing to together / today / I’m not angry / at her slurred speech / I’m not angry / at her missing teeth / I’m not angry / at her fuss / I’m not angry / that she looks nothing like / the last time I saw her / or that / I don’t know when the next time will be / for the ten minutes it takes Mama and me to get to the stands along the football field / I’m just happy we’re both here / alive

My name is Ada

but not really

it’s what my father’s side

calls me cause I was born


and on this day

I’m only three months

from leaving this place behind

they tell me there’s

a big world out there

and they tell me

there’s so much I can do

and I know nothing

but this city

but my father

but these schools

where I’ve always

been one of few specks

of dingy brown

in a sea of perfect white

but I know the bible

and I know how to do

the right things

so how hard could college

really be

How hard could it be to

1. Find a dress that both Mama and Dad would like.
2. Make sure the dress was loose enough to hide all my heavy.
3. Put on heels I could stand for more than three hours.
4. Pick Mama up in my own car.
5. Get Mama to my soon-to-be old school.
6. Sit Mama somewhere I could see her.
7. Run back and forth between Mama and Dad.
8. Smile for every camera.
9. Smile with Mama.
10. Smile when Mama insists that she be the first, after it’s over, to have dinner with me.

Dad smiles for his final picture with me

loosening the awkward grip

tightly held on the outside

of my right arm

his sharp signature cologne

left to linger across

my shoulders

a scent just as strong

as the bass

in the shifting tone of his voice

proud of you, Kid

you did good

he says

as if I’d done

my entire high school bid

just now, all in one day

thanks, Dad

I smile back, bashful

warm under the way

he looks at me

on the days

I do right

standing back I look

at the softness peeking through

thick folds of my father’s face

watch yet another attempt

to pull his belted suit pants

over the bottom of his round belly

now at the end of a long day

under the football field sun with beads of sweat

faithfully dabbed across his widow’s peak

by an old white cloth always tucked

in his back pocket basking in the praise

of his job well done

After the pictures are done

caught back and forth

on opposite sides

of the crowded field

buzzing with families proud

of children

they don’t really know

we pull into the driveway

as the sky surrounding Dad’s house

is deepening toward black from gray

Mama glances toward

his front door and back

toward the road behind us


I think to place a hand

on her trembling shoulder

but settle for telling her it’s okay, Mom

tell her we’ll be a minute

tell her I just need to change

tell her they’re not home yet

but Dad’s house is my house too

Mama looks back at me

wanting too much

to see where I live

but too proud to admit

she needs my permission

stares into the side of my face

hungry for any scrap

I might drop for her to catch

reaches for my hand

as I lift it just in time

from the gear stick for her to miss

shifting my foot

from the brake pedal

checking my phone for the time

I tell Mama

we’ve got thirty minutes

before my father and that woman

come home

Some kids grew up coming home

to the smell of mustard greens

special recipe mac and cheese

cornbread from scratch and cookies

baking in the oven

to the sound of their mama

screamin at somebody on the tv

getting on her nerves for the tenth time

while she watches the same shows

announcing to the whole house

that this will be

the last time I trip

over a child’s raggedy school shoes

or telling them you better

clean up that funky alleyway

that you like to call

your bedroom

some kids grew up

being asked about

why their grades ain’t

better than that and fussin

over homework they need to do

but my mama

was different

my mama just

wasn’t reallythe type

To keep tabs on me like that

wasn’t really my mama’s style I learned years ago

when she started asking me my age

I’d look back at her and wonder

how she could forget when she had me

how she could push out a whole person

and just forget

Mama and I both forget

about time the minute I turn the key

unlocking the front door to Dad’s house

suddenly it’s like we’re surrounded

by a museum of forbidden family

knowing she can look but not touch

Mama is everywhere her feet

take her wanting to see what we’ve

been up to while she’s away

the walls covered with me at every age

that she struggles to remember

Mama getting lost in all the picture frames

my fancy life of birthday parties and school plays

my first dance recital on a park stage

dressed in colorful West African cloth like the other girls

a buzz from my phone reminds me

to get her upstairs so I can change my clothes

From upstairs I can hear Dad’s car door slam

and I know they are home already

Mama’s fidgets come back again

and I’m angry

when just seconds ago

her soft hands were gliding

across my pictures

my clothes

my animals

stuffed with love

and a pillow with her picture

stuck inside its plastic cover frame

freshly painted red fingernails

touching just about everything

happy to be in the room

where her child sleeps

happy to be inside

and here she is

now filled with fear

filled with how they will see her

a stranger squatting

in her own daughter’s


I run from my room

closing the door behind me /

down the stairs / I run / so I can

smile and twirl / real sweet once more /

for Dad / and his new wife

to dance / in their still-fresh

pride of the new high school graduate

where is she, Dad asks

I tell him

she is upstairs

tell him

we’ll only be a few minutes

tell him

this is my house too

his new wife looks and sucks her teeth

upstairs, one of the first, down here the last

my baby brother off playing and oblivious

and suddenly I know somewhere

it’s written, somewhere it says

my mama shouldn’t be here

Mama shouldn’t be here

so we’re gone quick and quiet five minutes later to eat anywhere but here and Mama is cussin but I smile and turn on the radio, blast the ac cause it’s just her and me

I ask her where she wants to go and she tells meanywhere girl I’m with my baby

I knew we shouldn’t have gone in there! chile, did you see how she was lookin

I pretend it’s all nothing and drive us to my favorite restaurant thumping my fingers

on my lap to the beat, leave Mama to keep talking and talking to the tune of herself

She already answered this herself

when I come back to the motel for her the next day

a question she asks in the car on the way

to my graduation party and it sounds like some

kind of silly joke where she’s playing or must have

forgotten the party where we are headed is for me

I don’t really feel

like bein bothered

with all them people

all them people I don’t know

and they just gon be

lookin at me and I’m just gon be

sittin by myself and I just ain’t

in the mood to be bothered, you know

I ask her what she wants to do instead

but tell her I’m going to my party, after all

it was thrown for me, it’s either she comes

or she gets on the next train back, cause

today is supposed to be about me

oh I don’t know but

I don’t feel like bein bothered

I really ain’t tryna go to no party

she says

Away from the party on this drive to the train station

it’s only silent for a few minutes

before I’m called every name

I’m sure I’m not supposed to be

called by my mama but I know

this is how she says she’s angry

this is how she says this is her day too

this is how she says she’s sorry

in her own way, as a mother

for breaking all the rules

The first thing I do after everyone is gone

is shut the door

close the blinds

sometimes being dramatic

is my thing but

this really was

the first time I’ve seen

this much cash


the room I’d slept in

for the past seven years

painted a Pepto-Bismol pink

was now marked

an old green

at the center

I’d opened each

graduation card alone

skipped Hallmark notes

telling me Good Job! and Great Things Ahead!

skipped every Congrats on your big day!

in search of what mattered most

told Dad I didn’t feel like

being mushy

in front of all

those people

but truth is

I just wanted

to count my money

in peace