All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2015, 320 pages
In March, I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Virginia Teen Book Festival in Arlington, Virginia. One of the sessions was Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely talking about their book, All American Boys. When I heard a book about police brutality was in the works early last year, I was so excited to get my hands on it. Too many adults are afraid to talk about what they see as adult issues with teens — but the fact of the matter is, police brutality is an issue that is affecting people of all ages. I’d even take a guess that it affects young people more so. Reynolds and Kiely’s talk was honest, open, and blunt, as they spoke to a room of people of all ages.
I found the book to be less direct and far less complex than even the surface conversation Reynolds and Kiely held in the hour-long session. Rashad is minding his own business in a convenience store when a woman trips over him, causing a police officer to believe he’s stealing from the store. The officer takes Rashad outside and begins beating him to the point where Rashad ends up in the hospital for a week. Quinn, a white teen who goes to school with Rashad, witnesses the brutality and has conflicting feelings over the event, especially when he realizes the officer is his friend’s brother and his own father figure of sorts. While Rashad heals in the hospital and handles the media and community fallout, Quinn struggles with his own feelings on racism, police brutality, and justice.
Like Quinn, I have a lot of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, this is absolutely a topic that must be discussed with greater regularity, honesty, and compassion. The book does a great job in starting that conversation. I recognize that this conversation will likely not happen in schools and, if it does as a result of the book, pockets of society will challenge that. On the other hand, as much as I wanted to love this book, I just didn’t.
I’ll continue with the theme of conflict — the language used in the book is adult, no doubt. You’ll see profanity used, realistically, by teenagers and adults alike. But the language is not mature in the sense that it uses the complex language necessary for this topic. As a result, a lot of the nuances of the issue of police brutality are never brought up. Because it’s a book intended for teens, I’d expect some glossing, but the extent of surface material exceeds what I’d expect for this topic and its intended audience. I got the sense that Reynolds and Kiely (and the publisher) were so eager to get this out before it was “irrelevant,” that they rushed through it to hit the very main points without going into details. Ultimately, I think this was a huge loss for the book. I believe Reynolds and Kiely believe their audience is mature and intelligent enough to absorb more complexity, but it simply wasn’t there. And I recognize that these issues ARE complex, making them inherently difficult to write about, especially as the writing is just that — text. But I also want to acknowledge that they chose to approach a difficult topic to begin with.
The language, in another sense, lacked maturity. The reading level for this book, while I haven’t looked it up myself, felt lower than much of the other YA material I’ve read. This might have been intentional so as to make the book more accessible to a larger group of people, but given the subject matter, I felt it didn’t work.
Overall, I found Rashad to be far more interesting a character than Quinn, although he was in many ways more passive (mostly due to him being stuck in a hospital, though his reluctance to make his experience with brutality into a “thing” contributed, too). Wishy-washy, Quinn spends most of the book going back and forth on his feelings about what is happening in his community, the officer, his friendships without making much progress. Everything with Quinn is one step forward, two steps back, up until the very end, which left me with little confidence he’d really changed permanently or even far beyond the last pages of the book.
Speaking of the last pages — the final two pages of All American Boys are kind of what saved the book for me. With an astounding amount of well-done drama and tension, the last two pages pack a punch that I so wish the rest of the book had emulated. The last moments and words of this books are so powerful, and begin to dig into the realities of police brutality. I worry, though, that the impact is fleeting. I hate to give it away, so I’ll just say that there are dangers of using specific current events in books that cause the books to fail to age well. While I loved how these last pages made me feel now, I worry the impact will be severely lessened within just a few years’ time. The conflicting feelings with All American Boys seem endless, and not in a way that serves the book.
Reynolds and Kiely are wonderful, wonderful speakers. Knowing that Reynolds wrote for Rashad while Kiely wrote for Quinn, I can confidently say I strongly prefer Reynolds’ writing over Kiely’s. There was more texture to Reynold’s passages than Kiely’s, more emotional depth, more investment.
Perhaps, as a very early conversation starter, All American Boys does what it sets out to do. But I think the people reaching for this book are people who have already started that conversation and have the basic understanding of modern police brutality. Those who haven’t yet started the conversation probably won’t have the interest in All American Boys, despite the good it could do for them and their communities. I’m disappointed to say I was disappointed, but I do hope this book will open the door for similar works in the near future and have a great deal of respect for both authors and the book itself.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤