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All American Boys
My high school students will find that this novel hits very close to home. As residents of New York City, many of them joined and organized protests when grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. They staged a die-in. They educated their peers about what it feels like to be repeatedly stopped and frisked. For other young readers who have lived the reality of this novel, this may be a difficult read but it may also provide them the opportunity to discuss these problems through the lens of fictional characters in a fictional situation. All American Boys is a safe space for conversation about police brutality and racism in America. Its three stars are no surprise and well-deserved for this raw and emotionally honest book.
All that being said, as Karyn put so well in her review of All the Rage, I’m trying to resolve “the tension between what matters about this book and what matters for award season.”
I have no doubt that All American Boys will be life changing for some readers. Quinn’s journey from bystander to activist will inspire teens to speak out against acts of racially motivated violence. Rashad’s acceptance of his role in a larger movement will show readers how individual incidents are related to a larger problem of systemic racism. For those who are already all too familiar with these topics, they may find catharsis by identifying with one of the main characters.
But as I think through all this, a particular line of the Printz criteria comes to mind: “…POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award. Nor is MESSAGE.” Although I think this may be one of the most important books of 2015, I don’t think it represents the highest literary quality of the year.
Let’s start with what works.
Jason Reynolds’s writing continues to improve with each new book. His authorial voice is strong and he has a remarkable ability to create authentic teen dialogue. As narrator, Rashad may be the least interesting of the characters in his sections, which really says more about the richness of the supporting cast than anything about Rashad. His confusion and reluctance to be at the center of a movement is thoughtfully portrayed. Although a backstory for his strict father who is ex-military and a retired cop is conveniently neat, the effect on the narrative’s plausibility is balanced by how it serves the character development of the father, explains his tension with Rashad’s older brother, and points to the internalized racism that should be a larger topic of conversation when we talk about institutional racism.
Reynolds also does nice thematic work, connecting Rashad’s artistic inspirations—Aaron Douglas and The Family Circus (yes, the comic strip)—to the idea of framing a narrative and giving yourself voice in your own story. When describing his work, which is done inside circles, to his nurse at the hospital he says, “… the circle changes how you see it. Like, what are we looking through? A telescope? A peephole? The sight of a gun?” Reynolds reinforces the idea of framing through Rashad’s older brother, Spoony who says, “Man, listen, I had to make sure we controlled as much of the narrative as possible. If I ain’t send that photo in, they would’ve dug all through the Internet for some picture of you looking crazy … Trust me, man. I’ve seen it time and time again.”
The way that the video of Rashad goes viral, the creation of #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday, and the student-led protest all ring true. This half of the story is strong work from Reynolds, who continues to be a fascinating and exciting author to watch.
The hardest thing for me to say about this book is that I don’t see those qualities matched in Quinn’s chapters, making the book uneven. According to information on Brendan Kiely’s website, Jason Reynolds wrote for Rashad and Kiely wrote for Quinn in alternating chapters. (I assume that the authors planned the overall story together, but I’ll attribute the execution at a sentence level to each individual.) After the first third of the novel, I lost interest in Quinn and his story. The secondary characters in his sections felt flat and in general the writing suffers in juxtaposition with Rashad’s. Partially this is because there isn’t enough textual evidence to support Quinn’s main conflict: whether or not he will give his eyewitness account to the police, even though that would mean damaging his relationship with Paul, the cop involved who has been a father-figure to him. In fact, the beating is so obviously abhorrent to Quinn it seemed more like he just had to have the courage to do the right thing, not struggle to understand if Paul was actually “just doing his job.”
Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, was her response to Trayvon Martin’s death. That novel gestured towards the real-life events that inspired it but used them as a jumping off point to examine the subjective nature of truth, a community’s response to tragedy, and how individuals cope with loss. In Reynolds’s and Kiely’s book, the thesis is very clear and much simpler—everyone has a responsibility to call out injustice and fight for change. Yes, this is absolutely a message I hope reaches a wide audience, even though I don’t think it means the book deserves a Printz.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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