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It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything to this website. Overall, 2015 has been much quieter than 2014 in terms of my writing career. It’s not that things aren’t happening — The Scar Boys came out in paperback, the sequel (Scar Girl) publishes next spring, and I’m under contract to write two unrelated books — but at the moment, most of my writing life is behind the scenes. And that’s good, as the rest of my life has taken some wild turns this year (more on that below)…In other words, I’ve been neglecting the ol’ blog.
But I shall be silent no more, which, as it turns out, is an appropriate theme for this evening’s post. I’m here to write a five star book review of the forthcoming young adult novel, All American Boys. The book, co-authored by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, unapologetically takes on the issues of police brutality and race, and does so in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention. It’s rare to find a book that is not only timely and important, but that is also a literary treasure. All American Boys fits that bill.
Full disclosure. I know both Jason and Brendan personally. All three of our debut novels were published at roughly the same time (winter 2014). The Scar Boys for me, When I Was the Greatest for Jason, and The Gospel of Winter for Brendan (both of their books are outstanding reads). Jason and Brendan toured together (with John Corey Whaley, no less!), and I crossed paths with them a number of times on the road, happily developing a friendship with each along the way. They are really good guys, and really good writers. I aspire to write as well, and to tell stories as compelling, as these two gentlemen. But I know a lot of authors, and I like a lot of books. Sometimes I’ll give a shout out on Facebook or Instagram, but it’s rare for me to write something like I’m writing tonight. In other words, this review is not borne of friendship, but of my sincere assessment as a reader.
Fuller disclosure. As noted elsewhere on this blog, my wife, Kristen, and I are the incoming owners of the Tattered Cover family of bookstores in and around Denver, Colorado. We sold our house, moved our two kids and all our stuff from Connecticut, and settled in the Mile High City’s southern suburbs. I am now a bookseller. This means it is literally my job to sell books. This presents a bit of a conundrum.
As a writer, I have no interest in being critical of other writers’ work. But as a bookseller, I feel obligated to present honest, thoughtful reviews. What to do? First, I will not write disparaging reviews of books. It doesn’t mean I won’t read books that I don’t enjoy…it means that I won’t discuss those books. Not every book is a good fit for every reader; just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t find it’s audience. But if I am recommending a book, I will do my best to give a balanced, sincere assessment of why I want you to read it.
I will take great care in selecting books to review. Not every book I read will get the level of attention I’m giving to All American Boys in this post. In the past year or two, I can think of a few that I probably should have reviewed on this blog — Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, and Noggin by Corey Whaley, not to mention the aforementioned books by Jason and Brendan. So yes, I’m a bookseller who sells books, but I only handsell the books I truly love. (That’s a promise.)
Fullest disclosure. Two of my favorite people in the world are Kristen’s cousin and his wife, both of whom shall remain nameless for this post. (I haven’t checked with them ahead of time, and don’t wantt to call anyone out who may wish to remain anonymous.) You see, Kristen’s cousin in a cop. Actually, a police captain. When I first met him, he was an undercover narcotics detective who had seen no shortage of horrors on the job. He also spent a year working internal affairs, investigating allegedly dishonest cops.
The cousin is a patient, thoughtful, and gentle man, who only wants to do good for his family and community. He and his wife are more religious than Kristen and I, and are probably a bit more conservative, too. But we think so highly of them that if anything bad ever happened to us, we’d want them – the cousin and his wife — to raise our children. I can’t think of a bigger statement of support or faith in another human being than that. They are, simply put, really, really, really good people. (We love their kids, too.)
My exposure to Kristen’s cousin has allowed me to see the world through the eyes of a policeman. I’ve watched Ferguson, Staten Island, and other stories unfold not only with African American friends in mind, but the police, too. Not all cops are bad. Some are, yes. But many, like Kristen’s cousin, are exceptionally good.
Okay, now that the air is cleared with all my disclosures, let’s get back to the book.
All American Boys is the story of two teens, one white, one black, and their reactions to an incident of racially motivated, mindless, and senseless police brutality. Through an unfortunate circumstance of bad timing, Rashad is mistaken for a thief by a white policeman, and is badly beaten as he tries to defend and explain himself. Quinn, a family friend of the cop, witnesses the attack and has to come to grips with what he sees, and what it means for his own view of the world.
The writing matches the work done by both Jason and Brendan in the past — the dialogue and narrative flow with ease, the two voices complement one another, and the desecriptions are original and intoxicating. But as good as the writing is, that’s not what makes this book so special. What works so well here is the story’s inherent honesty.
Rashad and Quinn are real characters caught in a very real, but also surreal, situation. Each boy’s journey twists and turns from a place of "this can’t be happening to me" to a place of "I have no choice but to confront this thing head on." And each does so in a way that is at times uplifting, and at times (intentionally) uncomfortable.
About halfway through the book I started to worry that this was going to be to one-sided, a heavy handed commentary on racism without trying to understand what it really means. That worry turned out to be completely unfounded. I will not offer a spoiler other than to say that the authors found a way to make me think about how young black men are viewed in America, and how complicated a proposition that is. One of the most powerful scenes is when Rashad and his friends and family recount personal incidents of having been stopped by police simply because they (Rashad et al) were black.
That said, I did want to know more about Paul, the bad cop in question. The very real monsters in our world, I believe, almost never start out that way…they pretty much always have a backstory; I was curious to know more of Paul’s. But truthfully that’s a minor quibble. The story packs a wallop all the way through, and delivers an important message at the end. The book isn’t really about Paul, it’s about the two teens.
I did wonder what Kristen’s cousin, the cop, would think of the book. Would he agree with the thesis? Would he want to defend the police? My guess is that he’d take at least some issue with the story, that he’d worry its characterization of police was trying to draw general conclusions from specific events. And from his perspective, it would be a fair concern. But I also know he’d want his own kids to read All American Boys so they could discuss it as a family.
And that, right there, is the real power of this novel. This isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning. Jason and Brendan have succeeded (wildly, I might add) in providing a jumping off point for a conversation that is long overdue in America. (Kristen read the book, too, and she and I talked about it for hours.) Like so many great conversations throughout history, this one begins with a book, this book.
Bravo guys, bravo.
(And, of course, this book can be pre-ordered at TatteredCover.com.)