The praise for All American Boys is overwhelming: blurbs on the back cover from Jacqueline, Woodson, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Matt de la Pena; numerous high school teachers whom I follow on Twitter couldn’t put it down this summer nor wait to incorporate it into their instruction; and the lines for autographs at NCTE16 in Atlanta were only shorter than the line for S. E. Hinton’s 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders. I was fortunate to receive a copy from a professor of children’s literature at a local university who knows that I am not a ya lit fan but am willing to read anything that is “good.” And she thought it would be a valuable addition to my classroom library.
The novel is straightforward: the inside jacket states, “Rashad and Quinn–one black, one white, both American–face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement” [sic]. The novel deals with police brutality against African Americans, the difficulty of living in the United States as an African American male, and the difficulty of white Americans to understand what it is like to live in the USA as an African American. To add to this straightforwardness, the chapters written from Rashad’s perspective–the African American male teen attacked by the white police officer–are written by Jason Reynolds, who is an African American author; the chapters written from Quinn’s perspective–the white male teen who witnessed the beating of Rashad–are written by Brendan Kiely, who is a white author. The first chapter establishes that the beating was unnecessary; the second chapter establishes that the beating was brutal. Straightforward.
Twist number one comes at the end of chapter two. The police officer is the older brother of Quinn’s best friend; this man has also been a father figure to Quinn since Quinn’s father died in Afghanistan. Twist number two comes in chapter six: Quinn and Rashad are classmates, and Quinn plays varsity basketball with some of Rashad’s friends. The plot is predictable. People choose sides; friendships are tested and some falter; eventually, a protest occurs.
As someone who will snub a book simply because it is written for young adults, I was disappointed in the obviousness of All American Boys. Is the novel well-written, especially in its use of the two narrators/perspectives? Yes. What I came to realize is that this novel is early in tackling the issue of race in the 21st century, especially when situations include the police, and since it is early, it needs to be obvious and straightforward and transparent. The only way to begin the conversation is to remove all the maybe’s and are-you-sure’s. I expect that in a few years the plots will become more gray and ambiguous, more complex.
I wasn’t sure how it would be received by students in the rural, predominantly white high school where I teach. None of my students have read it for their independent reading assignment, and I know that at least some of the students whose parents are police officers would not be able to relate to either Rashad or Quinn. But a colleague who teaches a study skills class to students with learning disabilities was looking for a book to read with the students that they could relate to, so I recommended All American Boys. The class loves it; I hope that they are learning life lessons to take with them when they leave our insular community.