Module 5: All American Boys

Reynolds, J. and Kiely, B. (2015). All American Boys. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Genre: Realistic fiction, Coretta Scott King Honor. Realistic fiction because it is set in contemporary times with no magic or other speculative elements.

Book Summary: All Rashad wants to do is pop into a convenience store and pick up some chips on his way to a party on a Friday night. What happens, though, changes everything. Rashad bends down to pick out his cell phone from his bag, a woman trips over him, and the next thing he knows, a cop has him handcuffed and is beating him. He ends up in the hospital, and — subsequently — the subject of discussion of police brutality in the community, a place that Rashad doesn’t want to be.

Quinn, a member of the basketball team, witnesses Rashad being beaten, and is friends with officer, who has been like a second father to Quinn, since his father’s death. Quinn’s struggle is a decision whether or not he wants to become political and speak out against his friend.

Impressions: Oh, wow. I’d been putting this book off for years, mostly because I thought it was a football book. (Shows you what I know!)  But, this one — especially in the light of all the books dealing with police brutality in the wake of Ferguson (among others) — really packs a punch, especially for me as a white person. I really appreciated the dichotomy between Rashad — who is just grateful to be alive and who is trying to figure out answers why — and Quinn — who has a much more passive decision to make, in whether or not he wants to speak out about what he saw. It really does provide a lot of food for thought, and brings forward white privilege in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen before. While this book was hard to read — both Reynold and Kiely are masters of getting across emotion in as few words as possible — it is an important one.

Review: Magoon praises the book, reflecting on the dissonance between the white and black characters and praising it for the questions it raises with readers. Her final thoughts were: “It is perhaps too easy to call this worthy book timely and thought-provoking. Let us reach beyond simple praise and treat it instead as a book to be grappled with, challenged by, and discussed.”

Magoon, K. (2015, December 8). ‘All American Boys’ by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The New York Times [New York]. Retrieved from:  https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/books/review/all-american-boys-by-jason-reynolds-and-brendan-kiely.html.

Library Uses: I would put this one on a display of either books about African American life, Coretta Scott King award winners, or books reflecting the issues in the news. This would also be fantastic for a book group.

Readalikes:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This book is written from the point of view of the friend of a boy who was shot by police. She was a witness to the event, and because of that, her grief was made political. It touches on the topic of police brutality as well as systematic racism in the country.
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone: Through letters to Martin Luther King Junior, the main character looks at race relations in America — he is Ivy League-bound — and the judgement of the media after he has a run-in with a white, off-duty officer.
  • Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes: This one is written for a slightly younger audience, but touches on the topic of police violence as well. The main character is shot by an officer, and spends the rest of the book as a ghost as he watches his family and friends deal with his death.
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When They Call You a Terrorist

by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Sociology section at the bookstore.

This book, from one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement, is small, but it packs a punch. It’s basically Cullors’ life, growing up poor in LA in the 1990s, and how that experience — along with the arrests of her biological father and brother — propelled her to activism and the forming of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I am a white, cis-gender, hetrosexual woman, so I don’t really have a lot to say, really, about this one. Except to stand as a witness to Cullors’ experience and pain and try to be better about my behavior and opinions and actions in the future. I do think this book, much like Between the World and Me is a vitally important one. We, as a society, need to open our eyes and recognize that experiences like Cullors’ are not only valid, but that they should NOT be happening in a first world country. That the world that she experienced is not the world I experienced, and that there is a fundamental wrong happening there.

The audio book is excellent as well. I highly recommend listening to Cullors’ experiences in her own voice; it adds a power to it that may not have existed in print. There is an interview at the end of the book, as well. I recommend sticking around for that.

Audiobook: Sing Unburied Sing

by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Kevin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, drug use, and violence. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s not often I end up reading the National Book Award winner for fiction, and to be honest, I was surprised that I did. (I started listening to it before the awards…) I picked it up because people were talking about it, because I’ve never read Jesmyn Ward before, and because I was curious.

It’s basically a slice of life portrait of Mississippi. A black woman, Leonie, takes her two children — Jojo, whose story this is, and Kayla — on a road trip from the Gulf to Parchman, where their dad is getting out of jail after serving time for drug charges. It’s a hot mess of a road trip, partially because Leonie is a drug addict, and partially because she just can’t parent, interspersed with reflections from Jojo, his grandfather (Leonie’s father), and Leonie. It’s about relationships — Leonie’s brother was killed in a race-related shooting by her boyfriend’s (and baby daddy’s) cousin — and surviving and growing up and expectations.

I enjoyed the narration; there were three different narrators, one each for Jojo (I liked him best), Leonie and a ghost who shows up halfway through, but I wonder if this was a book that would have gone down easier read than listened to. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just felt like I missed things — connections, imagery, story — and I could have taken it slower in print than in audio.

Still, a worthwhile read.

The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some almost sex, and some drinking. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I came to this one in a round-about way. I have a teen review group, and one of them read this (and loved it), and so I didn’t feel a need to read it. Too many other things on the pile. Then, it became a big thing (and rightly so), being talked about all over the internets. and so we picked it to be a part of our summer teen book group. And that is really what pushed me to read it. (If all else fails: pick it for a book group. I’ll read it then!)

As one of my co-workers said, I’m reading this as a privileged white woman, and it makes one VERY aware of that privilege. At first, I thought I was not hip enough for Starr and her world, but after a couple of chapters, I found myself immersed in the world Starr inhabits. Thomas very eloquently shows (not tells!) the reader what it’s like to live in the inner city, the conflict- both with the “system” and with each other – that they face every day.

The basic plot is this: Starr is at a party, when a shooting happens. As everyone is fleeing, she ends up with an old friend, Khalil, and they end up getting pulled over by a white cop. And, because this unfortunately happens too often, the cop shoots Khalil. And from there, the story follows Starr as she deals with the aftermath of that. From dealing with PTSD after the experience (it’s her second friend who has been shot and killed), to dealing with being a witness at the grand jury (and all the implications that brings), to dealing with the balance between her home life and her school life — she goes to a prep school in the suburbs — and her friends there. Thomas treats everything complexly and is incredibly forthright and honest about absolutely everything. It’s an excellent portrait of the life of a black teenager and an important book, especially for a white person to read.

Like a River Glorious

likearivergloriousby Rae Carson
First sentence: “Sunrise comes late to California.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Content: There are some difficult scenes of emotional and physical abuse. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d let people know about the abuse before handing it to them.

Lee Westfall and her friends have made it to California, and Lee, with her “witchy” gold sense, have found them a pretty prime spot for gold hunting. Things are going well, until Lee’s awful (doesn’t even begin to describe it) uncle sends his henchmen to fetch her. They kill a couple of her friends, set fire to the camp, and basically kidnap Lee and a couple of others, including her beau, Jefferson. They end up at Lee’s uncle’s camp, which being run horribly, to say the least. He’s kidnapped Native peoples to do the work, and beats them while keeping them in squalor and nearly starving them. He’s “hired” Chinese workers, but doesn’t treat (or pay) them well at all. Lee is horrified, and doesn’t want to help this awful man, but he beats up Jefferson and her other friends in order to gain her cooperation. It’s awful, but it works. The question is: how can she survive in this situation while looking for a way to get out.

I’ll be honest: this one was slow starting. I picked it up and put it down several times, but after about 50 or so pages, it picked up considerably. So much so, that I didn’t want to put it back down. Carson doesn’t airbrush the treatment of the native peoples, and she is quietly feminist as well. Hiram (Lee’s uncle) is horrible, awful, and downright scary (I was thinking he was going to rape her at one point…) and while the ending is a bit too pat, it does wrap things up nicely.

A solid historical fantasy.

Peas and Carrots

peasandcarrotsby Tanita S. Davis
First sentence: “By the door,on the other side of the sheet that divides the room, Baby cries in his car seat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 9, 2016
Disclaimer: I’ve met the author, working with her for KidlitCon in Sacramento and I find her an absolutely delightful person.
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There are several instances of mild swearing, plus some illusions to adult drug and alcohol use. Because there are no f-bombs, it’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8, though it might be better for the older end of that spectrum) of the bookstore.

Dess is a 15-year-old girl stuck in the foster care system. Her deadbeat dad’s finally in jail, as is her mom. Dess’s grandmother gave up trying to care for her and her baby brother years ago. Dess is determined: she doesn’t need anyone. And so when she gets placed in a new home, one of an affluent family, she figures it’s not going to last.

Hope’s parents are stable and happy and take in foster kids, including Dess’s brother Austin, to give back to the community. Hope’s used to the revolving door of kids, but there’s never been one close to her age. Until now. And since Dess is doing pretty much everything to keep people at arm’s length, Hope knows that living with Dess is going to be a challenge. She just doesn’t know if she’ll be able to adjust.

First test: which one of these girls is African American and which one is white? (Answer: Dess is white. Did you pass?) That’s actually one of the first things I liked about this: Davis takes your (my) assumptions about foster care, about the State of the Country, and turns it upside down. In this story, the white girl is the one who’s on the run from an abusive family and the black girl who has the stable life. And Davis doesn’t leave it there; there’s discussion about race and class and belonging, which I respect.

And, as an unofficial foster parent myself, I found myself nodding and agreeing and loving the entire book. Yes, the kids come with baggage and a backstory that usually isn’t pretty. Yes, their lives can be changed by living in a stable, more affluent (though we’re not nearly as well off as Hope’s parents) situation. But Davis also got the corollary to that: having a foster kid in your home is challenging, sometimes disruptive, but is also life-changing. And, if you let yourself — as Hope and Dess eventually find out — you will be better off for it.

Definitely worth reading.

Between the World and Me

betweentheworldby Ta-Nehisi Coates
First sentence: “Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including a couple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Sociology section (I think) of the bookstore.

By now, most of you will have either heard of this or read it, I think. There’s not much to say, summary-wise; it’s a letter from Coates to his son concerning what Coates thinks about being a black man in America. It’s sort of rambling, and kind of disjointed; it feels like a series of random thoughts jotted down on a piece of paper as Coates was musing about his place in this world. Which fits, I think.

What it is, really, is damning. Especially if you, as Coates put it, think you’re white. There’s a complacency that comes with being white, with being privileged (even if you’re “just” middle class), that isn’t afforded to those who are not. And Coates, rightly, forcefully, reminds us of that. Reminds us that to be black — particularly a black male, since he’s writing from his own experience — is to bear the burdens of all our complacency. That our “freedom” isn’t free, and that it’s not the military who are paying for it. That all these shootings that are making the news aren’t new, that they have been going on for hundreds of years, and those that think they are white just throw up their hands and turn a blind eye.

One passage that really struck me:

I am ashamed I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more. This is the import of history all around us, though very few people like to think about it. Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been “I am not a racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

It’s a difficult read, because he condemns everyone and offers no answers. There’s no solutions, possibly because Coates doesn’t have any, and I found that a difficult thing to swallow. I want to know HOW I can change, what I can do to make a difference. Perhaps reading books like this is a start; it has made me aware that there are black men and women who think this way, who believe that they are lesser because we let police arrest and shoot them. Who are not given the same opportunities because they can’t afford to buy a house in the suburbs. Who are treated differently when they walk into stores just because of the color of their skin.

It does make me feel hopeless, in a way. But, on the other hand, I’ve read this and I’ve been made aware. Maybe that’s a start.