Book Review: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Originally, I was planning on reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the category “book set in high school” for my Reading Challenge. I kind of think that the reading gods knew that All American Boys was coming out in the fall of 2015 and had a different plan for me.
Every time Wallflower would come in at the library, I would be in the middle of a much larger book and couldn’t get to it. And that book is always on hold!
I still want to read Wallflower, but when I saw the article All American Boys: A Young Adult Book About a Police Beating and a Hard Choice on NPR's website, I knew that I had found another high school book that would treat serious themes in YA fiction with honesty, integrity, and dignity.
The chapters alternate between Rashad, an ROTC artsy African-American student, and Quinn, a white basketball varsity player who’s hoping for a college scholarship.
The book covers the week in their lives following Rashad’s beating by a white police officer. Quinn witnessed the beating and said nothing. He knew the officer and didn’t know how to react.
What truly set this book on a pedestal for me was that co-authors Reynolds and Kiely wrote characters with every possible point of view on this assault, including how a viral video affected the media coverage.
And while every character espoused their opinion, one of the central questions the authors addressed was how much fathers shape their sons.
Rashad’s father was an ex-cop. Strict would be just one adjective to describe his parenting style. He did not approve of how Rashad or his older son appear. As the story developed, so did Rashad’s relationship with his father.
And then there’s Quinn. His father was killed in Afghanistan, and Paul, the white police officer, became a surrogate father to Quinn.
Each young man was navigating his own morality. As an English and social studies teacher, this book gives teens a chance to discuss institutional and systemic racism and stereotypes with a timely narrative. There was one teacher in the book who was characterized as the rigid institution of education. And sadly, I can attest that I often cannot discuss current events my students want to talk about. There’s no time. I have standards to teach and standardized tests to prepare for. I would hope that if Rashad and Quinn were students at my school that I would react differently to an attack so close to home, but I have not been put in that situation, so I truly don’t know how I would react.
For anyone concerned about the book’s mature themes, Reynolds and Kiely do offer an authentic picture of teen life for these two young men being raised in a small working class town. There’s language and alcohol use. Nothing sensationalist or overdone. But present. The description of the assault was disturbing to read as were some of the threats leveled against several people. Regardless, this book is an important read and a conversation starter.
While this book sometimes employed convenient details that made the plot feel less than complicated, the central theme offered enough complexity to keep me wondering how the boys would resolve their own questions. The resolution did not disappoint.