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All American Boys – A Full Disclosure Book Review


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.

Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

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.)

Tattered Cover, Here We Come!

The following press release went out a few minutes ago. Yes, life really is this good.


Tattered Cover Owner Chooses Successor
Joyce Meskis to retire from business in two years

March 26, 2015 (Denver, CO) – Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, Inc., announced today that she reached an agreement with long-time book industry veterans Len Vlahos and his wife, Kristen Gilligan to assume control of the business over a two-year time frame. Mr. Vlahos and Ms. Gilligan will join the senior management team of the Tattered Cover on July 1, 2015, and acquire a controlling interest in the business on July 1, 2017. At that point Ms. Meskis will retire and thereafter be available on an as needed basis. More specific terms of the deal were not made public.

“Len and Kristen are exceptionally well-qualified and well-suited to guide the Tattered Cover through the opportunities and challenges of the future,” said Ms. Meskis. “Their energy, passion, philosophical faith in the importance of the role bookselling plays in the community and solid commitment to the strength of its future, ensures my confidence in the longevity of the Tattered Cover in their hands.”

“To become part of the fabric of Tattered Cover is literally a dream come true,” Vlahos said. “The important role bookstores play—as conduits for the free flow of ideas and as stewards of the culture—is essential to the health and well being of our communities. There is no better example of what an indie bookstore can and should be than Tattered Cover. I’m deeply honored that Joyce has confidence in Kristen and me to join the team and lead the business into the future.”

When Joyce Meskis purchased Tattered Cover in 1974, it was a small, struggling 950-square foot shop in the Cherry Creek North neighborhood of Denver. Over the next forty-one years she and the booksellers who joined her built an internationally-recognized store known for exceptional service and loyalty to the greater Denver community.

Tattered Cover now owns and operates four retail stores in and around the city, including on Colfax Avenue, in Lower Downtown, in the newly refurbished Denver Union Station, and soon to open in the Aspen Grove Shopping Center in Littleton the store formerly located in Highlands Ranch. There are also three licensed store locations at Denver International airport with one more to follow.

The business has weathered a series of economic challenges: the boom and bust years in Colorado; the roll out of chain superstores; the advent of e-commerce and the rise of digital books; as well as the recent great recession. Yet, Tattered Cover has persevered and remained one of Denver’s most cherished literary and cultural institutions.

Ms. Meskis, 73, is a former president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and has been honored by numerous organizations for her lifelong and steadfast commitment to free speech and First Amendment rights, including the American Library Association’s (ALA) Award for Free Expression. She was also the recipient of the distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement and Exceptional Service to the Denver Metropolitan Area from the University of Colorado, and served seven years as the Director of the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. Several Authors’ Associations have honored the Tattered Cover for its support. Over the years the store has hosted thousands of author events celebrating first timer and veteran, the controversial to the beloved, all as a community service.

Len Vlahos is currently the Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group—a national, member-based non-profit devoted to facilitating innovation and shared solutions on behalf of the book publishing industry. Prior to that he had a twenty-year career at the American Booksellers Association, leaving as the Chief Operating Officer in 2011. Before ABA, Vlahos was a bookseller in independent, university, and chain bookstores. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Scar Boys (Egmont USA)—a finalist for ALA’s William C. Morris Award for best debut teen fiction of 2014—along with the forthcoming sequel, Scar Girl. He recently signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury publishers for two new works of young adult fiction.

Kristen Gilligan—a book industry veteran as well—had a decade-long career at the American Booksellers Association, leaving as the Director of Meetings and Events. Before ABA, Gilligan was a bookseller and managed an independent bookstore in Chappaqua, New York. She currently works on special projects for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) and prior to that for the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). Gilligan is also a former resident of Boulder, Colorado. Vlahos, Gilligan, and their two young sons are relocating to Denver from Stamford, Connecticut.

“I’ve experienced first hand how the profession of bookselling changes lives,” Gilligan said. “There’s a magic and a magnetism in seeing the right book find its way to the right customer. I am thrilled beyond belief that I will have the opportunity to help Tattered Cover continue and grow its great tradition of bookselling in Denver.”

Tattered Cover’s General Manager Matt Miller, who has worked with Ms. Meskis at the store for over 36 years, has served on both the Board of Directors of the ABA as well as ABFFE, and has also worked directly with Mr. Vlahos and Ms. Gillian in that capacity, said the following:

“It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to work with Joyce these many years, building a business that is so rewarding and so important to the community. Having known and worked with Len and Kristen over the years, I can think of no better scenario for the future of the store than for them to take reins as Joyce transitions toward retirement. I am confident that they will bring continuity and vitality to the Tattered Cover through their commitment, talent, and vision for decades to come. I am looking forward to working with them toward that goal.”

“Joyce Meskis helped create the modern independent bookstore,” said Oren Teicher. ABA’s Chief Executive Officer. “She served our organization with great distinction as a Board Member and President, and her leadership on First Amendment and free expression issues is legendary. That Tattered Cover will continue under the expert leadership of Kristen Gilligan and Len Vlahos reinforces the good news surrounding indie bookstores of late. I can say with complete confidence that all of us associated with indie bookstores are smiling broadly with this announcement.”