Tuesday, June 28, 2016

All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Simon and Schuster Audio, 2015

In a light-departure from the regularly unscheduled program, I’ve decided to review one of the best books I’ve read in a while.  What? Why is that a departure? Because....drum roll...I LISTENED to it.  Yes, amigos, an audiobook!  I feel noting the medium is important here, not only because audiobook delivery is pretty make or break (in my opinion), but because the audio recording is notably fantastic.  I felt as though I was in a theatre, not in my car, in heavy traffic, for 8+ hours. I was rapt, moved, and fascinated. This is also to say I didn’t actually read it, so things that I might pay attention to regarding experience or writing were kind of inconsequential to me. I hope but don’t know if I’d be as transfixed if I weren’t listening to the tremendous talent, trapped for hours, or able to like, check Instagram every seven minutes, just in case one of you has any steaming fresh food porn for me. For the record, while driving down the worst highway in America (I-84 CT), I cried, but not just because it's a terrible highway, but because this book made me incredibly sad, happy, and angry.

All American Boys first came across my radar months ago, probably in the fall, in one library review journal or another. I noted it as both something to collect and something to consider very seriously as a title to add to our summer reading list (which is awesome, btw). The title seemed timely with what felt and sometimes still feels like sickening news reports of young black men and women being assaulted or worse by police officers.  I had reservations that All American Boys would be cut from the same cloth as every Law and Order episode ever (ripped from the headlines, either trivializing or scaremongering), a publishing hot topic moneygrub.  However, before I had the chance to read it, the book received a Coretta Scott King honor designation (the award honors “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values,” ALA.org). Suffice it to say, I felt pretty good about putting it on my list after that - so thanks for doing the legwork, committee members who decided this!  I meant to physically read it, but before I had the chance, I had to go on a long drive by myself, and realized it would be a good time to catch up on some readin’.  Friends, do yourself a favor this summer vacation if you’re going on a road trip, and get this one to listen to; it is now officially on your Summer Reading List for 2016.   If you think America has a problem with institutional racism, you should read this book.  If you don't, you probably need to.  

All American Boys is the story of two young men in an American city (Springfield, so there’s fittingly one in every state (which we should all know thanks to the Simpsons), which is an appropriate foil).  One, Rashad, is black, and the other, Quinn, is white.  Though they are classmates in a large high school, they are strangers to one another until Rashad is brutally assaulted by a cop at a convenience store, and Quinn witnesses the attack.  Rashad survives, but is hospitalized with his injuries.  Quinn is thrown for a loop; he knows Rashad did nothing to deserve the brutality, but he knows the cop who did it - it’s his best friend's older brother, and his mentor.  When footage of the assault leaks, the boys, their families, friends, and town grapple with the ramifications, implications, and responsibilities of the issues it forces to the forefront.  Engaging and timely, this book asks all the right questions, humanizes the characters, demonstrates just how complicated and pervasive the issues of racism and police brutality are, and that they are universal issues which we all need to pay attention to.  

Ultimately, none of the characters and none of the readers are left feeling that anyone can just be a bystander, nor should we be.  This book is as moving as it is hopeful, thoughtful, and multifaceted, and makes an extremely difficult topic accessible.  It’s the kind of book I wish we’d had when I was in high school and grappling with the reality of my own inherent racism and prejudices in several classes with one of the greatest teachers out there, Peter Goddard, over at Newton North High School (Mr. Goddard, if you read this, make the Leadership kids read it!).  Moreover, it presents male characters who have rich lives, deep feelings, meaningful friendships and interests that don’t totally define them, though they do help frame them (art, basketball, etc.). It is strongly recommended to all readers, probably aged 13 and up due to the obvious violence and some strong language.  It’s a great book for teenage boys and reluctant male readers (basketball, nonfiction, characters to identify with!).

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