Sunday, December 13, 2015

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys is the book for the times. It completely blew me away. Two authors, one white and one black, tell this tale in alternating chapters from the point of view of two teens. Quinn, who is white, sees his best friend’s older brother Paul, a white policeman who has always helped him, beat up a black kid from his high school outside a convenience store. Rashad, the black kid who was beaten, is in the hospital with significant injuries. He’s always been a model kid and now he’s the subject of protests.

This young adult novel defies stereotypes as shown by Rashad’s father, a strict, former cop, whose first comments to Rashad in the hospital were:
“I need to know what the hell you were thinking, shoplifting. Shoplifting? And from Jerry’s of all places?” Dad has that disappointed look on his face – the same face he used to give me before I joined ROTC. . .
“I didn’t steal nothin,’” I said, suddenly feeling too tired to explain, even though I just woke up.
“Well then, why did the cops say you did?” Dad replied . . .
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Dad scoffed. “Really Rashad? You don’t know?”

Reynolds and Kiely show that it isn’t just whites who assume wrongdoing by a black male in today’s culture, it’s everyone. Rashad knows he’s innocent, but he’s tired and conflicted. His brother, though, refuses to “sweep this under the rug, like this is okay.”  Rashad isn’t sure what he wants:
“I gotta admit, there was a part of me that, even though I felt abused, wanted to tell him to let it go. To just let me heal, let me leave the hospital, let me go to court, let me do whatever stupid community service they wanted me to do, and let me go back to normal. I mean, I had seen this happen so many times. Not personally, but on TV. In the news. People getting beaten, and sometimes killed, by the cops, and then there’s this fuss about it, only to build up to a big heartbreak when nothing happens. The cops get off. And everybody cries and waits for the next dead kid, to do it all over again. That’s the way the story goes. A different kind of Lifetime movie. I didn’t want all that.  Didn’t need it.”

Quinn is conflicted as well. He hasn’t decided whether to tell anyone what he saw. Everyone at his school is upset about the beating and Quinn’s black teammates on the basketball team and his best friend's family have him wondering what he should do. Their entire town has watched a video of the beating. Quinn had decided not to watch the video – after all he was there. He understands that he can walk away and not think about Rashad.

“I could be all the way across the country in California and I’d still be white, cops and everyone else would still see me as just a “regular kid,” an “All-American boy, “Regular,” “All-American,” White. F--k.

But then, after dinner. . . I realized something worse: It wasn’t only that I could walk away – I already had walked away. Well, I was sick of it. I was sick of being a d--k. Not watching the d--n video was walking away too, and I needed to watch it.”

After he watches the video and talks to his friend Jill, Quinn decides that he’d been “trying to stare so hard at my own two feet so I wouldn’t have to look up and see what was really going on. And while I’d been doing that, I’d been walking in the wrong direction. I didn’t want to walk away anymore.”

Later in English class, Quinn looks at notes left on the whiteboard from a previous class and begins to ruminate:

“Active versus passive voice.  I remembered the exact same lesson from ninth grade.  I’d thought it was all a pain in the ass, but what had once been a stupid grammar lesson now formed a weird lump in my throat.

Mistakes were made, Mrs. Tracey had scrawled. And beneath it she’d written, Who, Who made the mistakes?

In my mind, I ran through the exercise I remembered from the time, rearranging the phrases, making something passive active, but this time I found myself changing the other words too, because I was clearly becoming obsessed – even if I didn’t want to be.

Mistakes were made.
Rashad was beaten.
Paul beat Rashad.”

This is a novel that shows how hard it is to do the right thing. It makes the reader feel the pressures put on every character. It shows how all American boys need to learn to be good people in a tough world. It also uses humor to make it possible for readers to process what happens. It’s quite simply a winner. That the title doesn’t contain a hyphen making it All-American Boys is a subtle, yet significant, touch.  This isn’t a book about what society considers an “All-American Boy.”  It’s a story about All American boys and how important it is for them to learn to do what’s right. A bonus is that it shows how caring adults, especially teachers, can influence kids.

Summing it Up: All Amercian Boys is timely, eloquent, realistic, funny, and profound.  The characters don’t fit stereotypes and the writing alone would make it a winner. However, it’s the content that makes it required reading for all Americans now.  After seeing the horrific video of Laquan McDonald being shot repeatedly and watching protests throughout Chicago, we need to think, listen, watch, talk, and consider what we can do to change this culture. Buy this for a teen you love, but make sure to read it yourself before you wrap it.

Warning: If X-rated language bothers you, understand that teens use it and that this novel wouldn’t reflect reality without it.

Rating: 5 stars   
Ages 13 and up
Category: Diet Coke & Gummi Bears, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Authors’ Websites: Brandon Kiely: Jason Reynolds:
Read an Excerpt: (Warning this contains language some may find offensive.)
What Others are Saying:
“At once timely and timeless, funny and wickedly smart, ALL AMERICAN BOYS is a beautifully written narrative about … about so many things — but most importantly - what it means to be a young man in America - across lines of race — and what it means to be a GOOD person in America — across lines of Everything.”
— Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming, winner of the National Book Award

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