All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad left his ROTC meeting, stopping by the convenience store for some chips on his way to the party. Now, what flavor was least likely to ruin his breath, just in case he met that cute girl there? He made a selection, then went to text his friend that he was on his way, when he remembered that he had left his phone in his backpack, so he tucked the chips under his arm and knelt down on the floor to open his backpack. The lady who had been picking out beer in the refrigerator behind him took a step back and fell over him. She went flying, the chips went flying, and so did Rashad. Immediately, a young cop in the store accused him of assaulting the woman, and the store clerk accused him of stealing the chips. Before he knew what was happening, Rashad was in handcuffs on the sidewalk in front of the store being beaten almost to death. Rashad was black. The lady was white, the cop was white, and the clerk was white.

Quinn’s dad had died on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Grown-ups often spoke to Quinn in hushed tones, sure that he would live up to the hero image that his dad had left behind. Quinn was told that he was an all-American boy: clean-cut and handsome, a star on the basketball team, and an exemplary older brother. He never knew what to say to them. He and his friends were headed to a party after school, and Quinn wanted to stop by the store on the way there. They waited in the alley while he rounded the corner and stopped short. Some kid lay on the ground in handcuffs with blood all over him, while a cop was beating the snot out of him. The kid looked familiar, but Quinn recognized the cop immediately. It was Paul, his friend’s older brother, who had been like a surrogate dad to him since his father’s death.

Since All American Boys was written by two authors, the audiobook is narrated by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs, who do a stellar job alternating chapters between Rashad and Quinn, showing a realistic reaction to the chain of events from a black and a white high school kid’s perspective. Quinn’s English teacher has just come to the end of a unit on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Quinn slowly realizes that, although Rashad is on his basketball team, he hadn’t even known his name. Paul automatically expects Quinn to be on his side, since their families are so close, but once the video of the beating hits the internet and then the news, Quinn is forced to rethink a lot of things.

All American Boys was written in 2015 and won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, so why is it being challenged today? The authors depicted a society that was already sick of these incidents, and this was five years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Both of these boys are good kids; they are both All American Boys.

Reynolds and Kiely

Lest we think that all of racism has been dealt with, and that it’s about people “out there,” and not people near us, here’s a little, tiny incident that happened near me last week. I was in Walmart, scanning the shelves in the wine aisle, when I looked ahead and thought, “Wow, that’s a terrible label. It’s so covered with writing you can’t even tell the name of the wine.” I got up to the bottles and realized that they were turned around to the back. I picked one up and turned it to see BLACK GIRL MAGIC on the front. At first, I was disgusted to think that someone had gone to the trouble to turn the bottles around, so I started turning them back when I saw that all of the bottles, all the way to the wall, were turned around. Then, I was furious. It was either the stocker or someone who had taken a lot of time and energy to make sure that no one saw the name of the wine. How could there be so much casual racism still out there, right in my neighborhood? As I walked to the end of the aisle, I saw a young black woman across the way, choosing orange juice. I was immediately crushed in my spirit, thinking of how it would feel to be just shopping for your family and suddenly be confronted with the fact that someone found your race and gender so offensive that they felt compelled to hide the fact of your existence, as if to make you invisible.

All American Boys, like so many books these days, is being challenged because it might make someone uncomfortable. As if it’s important to make racists nice and comfortable. Book challenges are not just news stories to me; they’re personal. It’s my job to put kids’ books into libraries. I spend my days searching out great books like this one that will build children’s character, to help them to live someone else’s life for a while so that they will develop empathy and become good neighbors to one another, so that they would never, ever try to erase another human being.

This book is highly recommended, although the language is high-school-boy dreadful. Let’s get uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title—which I put there, by the way. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Authors’ image originally appeared in the NY Times.

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