Wednesday, July 13, 2016

ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

I read All American Boys in response to the police violence of last week. The news read like a dystopian novel: police officers had killed 2 more African Americans, and an army veteran had shot 12 policemen, 5 fatally, in retaliation. Then DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, was arrested with undue force during a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The incident was captured on his and other cell phones and went viral. My tweet in support of DeRay caught the attention of racist trolls, whom I ignored.

DeRay's violent arrest hit me on a personal level. I'd heard him speak eloquently at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, and no one is working harder than he is to find a non-violent, political solution to the problem of police brutality. My husband teaches politics at Bowdoin and is friends with DeRay. We were appalled by his arrest. After making a donation for the protestors' bail and legal services, I retreated to the comfort of a good book.

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson being arrested in Baton Rouge. Photo by Max Becherer  7/9/16

All American Boys tackles police brutality and racism with a gritty realism that will resonate with both teens and adults. This empowering story is narrated in alternating voices: Rashad, the black victim, and Quinn, his white classmate who witnesses the beating and runs away. The coauthors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, mirror the ethnicity of their protagonists.

Author Jason Reynolds
In the opening chapter, Rashad changes out of his junior ROTC uniform into street clothes and stops at a convenience store to buy a snack. When a white woman accidentally trips over Rashad and falls, the shopkeeper accuses him of theft. A white policeman drags Rashad outside and beats him so badly that he requires hospitalization. The incident is caught on cell phones and goes viral. Without his consent, Rashad becomes a hashtag.

Author Brendan Kiely
Quinn, the teenage eyewitness, struggles with his conscience. The brutal policeman was no stranger; Paul is his best friend's older brother. When Quinn's dad died while fighting in Afghanistan, Paul had stepped in as a surrogate big brother and taught him how to shoot hoops. Quinn's basketball prowess may earn him a free ride to college. Quinn is torn between his loyalty to Paul and "doing the right thing." The moral dilemma plays out at home, at school and on the basketball court as friends and family take opposing sides.

All American Boys is anti-brutality but not anti-police. All the characters have strengths and weaknesses; they are realistically human. Although the protagonists are boys, many of the strongest characters are girls and women. The story is emotionally challenging but easy to follow. After an explosive start, the pace slows in the middle as momentum builds to the climax. The heart-wrenching ending left me in tears but not without hope. I'd strongly recommend All American Boys to everyone, whatever your age, ethnicity or gender. This powerful book should be required reading in American high schools and at police academies. It would make for an excellent book group discussion too.

The iconic image of the Baton Rouge Protest Against Police Brutality by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters July 2016

By the time I'd finished reading All American Boys, our friend DeRay had been released on bond and is now back at his advocacy work. Follow this link to his Campaign Zero for an interactive tool that allows you to track the progress of police violence legislation on the local, state and national levels. Change isn't going to happen unless we hold legislators accountable and push for progress.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book in 2015 and lost it in my to-be-read stack. Thanks to a nudge from YA author I.W. Gregorio of We Need Diverse Books, I remembered to read it now. Another book we both recommend is Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir, Between the World and Me. I write and review YA fiction, but my academic degrees are in Political Science. Author photos are from twitter.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

"in tears but not without hope".
I think this describes this summer perfectly.
Thank you for calling attention to this book.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Great review Sarah. I will definitely recommend this to my son for the summer.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, so true! I am holding out for hope.

Mama Shujaa, thank you. I would love to hear your son's reaction to this book.

thecuecard said...

Thanks for sharing about what happened to DeRay. I agree improvements need to be made in police regulations & how they go about their work. Push for peaceful change!

Amanda Summer said...

A very timely and powerful read. Also appreciate hearing about your connection to DeRay. May his message and peaceful actions motivate more to the cause, like the young woman in that iconic image.

A Cuban In London said...

Crazy and fearful times we are living. I just don't know how to react to news these days. The last month has been mad in more ways than one. Great review and I love your sensitivity. Probably the reason why you attracted those trolls. They don't like intelligent and nuanced views.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cue & Amanda, we are lucky to have a smart, dedicated man like DeRay working on this. The stint in jail didn't silence him. He used the time for reflection on how power tests character and is now taking on the big politicians on all forms of media. My feed is full of his powerful tweets, and there are plenty of equally strong woman in this movement too.

A Cuban in London, I often wonder how this mess looks from abroad, and I'm sorry to see racism/xenophobia on the rise in your adopted country too. I spent a lot time thinking about this book and how to word the review. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by emotions and also challenging to write about injustices beyond my personal experience. Your support and praise means so much to me. Thank you.

troutbirder said...

You did good, Sarah...What an awful summer at home and abroad. I think of my five grandchildren a lot these days. Three white and two black....

walk2write said...

Thanks for another excellent review. Your connection with DeRay makes it even more powerful. I've been looking for great books to recommend for our local book club's fall reading list and will definitely put this one at the top of the list.

Bee said...

What a moving post! The linked issues of racial prejudice and police brutality must be addressed and dealt with - and books like this are an important tool for opening up minds and hearts. You've done a superb job of connecting this book to both a topical issue and your own experiences.

Sarah Laurence said...

troutbirder, I wish I could say race relations have improved since then, but I can't. It's good to have books like this one for the next generation.

w2w, thanks for recommending this book. I hope it was chosen.

Bee, thanks! I love that you've been working to get the right books into the hands of young readers who need them.

Unknown said...

Thanks for recommending this book, I really enjoyed it and the great author of this book.