A colleague recently shared Trevor Noah’s interview with author Jason Reynolds. His closing lines of the interview, in which he talks about how to make reading matter for teens, resounded with me, “they [students] then build relationships not just with literature but with literacy. Then we start fixing violence, we start fixing gangs, all of that, once you realize that your life is dependent on your relationship with words.” Coincidentally, the timing of watching this interview was the same as I was starting to read All American Boys by Reynolds and co-author Brendan Kiely. This is my first Reynolds novel, but it most definitely won’t be the last.
I can’t help but make the initial comparison to The Hate U Give based on the primary conflict of police brutality and racism. For me, this book added a different element to the table. Point of view and empathy are critical pieces to this novel. The narrative switches back and forth between Rashad and Quinn’s voices. Both are regular high school guys from the same school getting ready to start their weekend with a party. They attend the same high school and have acquaintances in common, but don’t personally know each other.
The Friday night takes a terrible turn for Rashad. He stops at a convenience store for some snacks, and he’s thought to be stealing because of a silly accident by someone near him. An officer is in the store, and he is pulled out and horribly beaten while handcuffed. Quinn (and other bystanders – there’s a tape made) witnesses this event, and it turns out that the officer is the older brother of Quinn’s good friend. It turns out that this officer is also the same man who has been a stand-in father figure for Quinn. The intense internal and external conflict that this creates for the main characters and their families, friends, and the school community as a whole is compelling.
I was caught up in even the most minor character and the emotions of everyone involved from the very beginning. Even the ways that different teachers tried to handle the aftermath was representative of how people deal with the reality of harsh situations. From the basketball coach who wants the team to “leave it at the door,” to the teacher who breaks down in tears in front of her class, to the teacher who helps organize their march. So many lines stood out to me, including this one on page 296, “Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests?”
Every word of this book matters.