All American Boys is a YA novel written by two authors--one Black and one White--depicting a situation that, while fictitious, is sadly all too real: an innocent Black teen is attacked and badly beaten by a White police officer on suspicion of attempted shoplifting. They present that situation and its fallout from the alternating perspectives of Rashad (the Black teenager who is the victim of police brutality), and Quinn (a White teenager who attends the same high school as Rashad, and who is very close to the cop who attacked Rashad and best friends with that cop's younger brother). It is a brilliant approach to an incredibly difficult subject, tackling issues such as systemic racism, White privilege, and subconscious bias by following these characters as they struggle through those very things. It is a book which is, on the one hand, very easy to read--it is well-written, approachable, and very much suitable for young adult readers; and yet, on the other hand, is very difficult to read--it is unflinching in forcing readers to confront difficult facts and truly think deeply about their own experiences and actions.
This is the sort of book that I strongly believe should be read in classrooms all around the USA; it is an incredibly powerful tool educators can use to open up discussion about issues that impact every single one of their students, whether or not they realize it, and to think both critically and empathetically about them. I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by Renee Watson, who wrote about All American Boys and interviewed both authors back in 2016 (I highly recommend reading this interview, available here). As she put it:
After reading All American Boys, I wanted to get it into the hands of the young people I know and every educator, too. I believe this book can be a vehicle to help young people and educators openly discuss racism, white privilege, and stereotypes. It’s more than a book about police brutality. It’s a book about two teen boys finding out who they are, what they believe, and how sometimes that conflicts with the lessons they’ve learned from their parents and their communities. It’s about taking risks and moving past being a silent bystander or a passive ally to being an active agent of change.
When it was first published in 2015, All American Boys was (very accurately) described as "timely" and "thought-provoking"; Nalini Jones, in a review in the New York Times, said of it that it "represents one voice — even better, two voices — in a national conversation that must continue beyond its pages." And yet, five years later, in 2020 this book was #3 on the American Library Association's Most Challenged Books list. For what reasons were people challenging this book? What caused them to try to remove it from schools and from libraries, and to prevent it from being assigned as reading and discussed in classrooms?
Why is this book being challenged?
According to the ALA, All American Boys was: "Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”."
First, I will say this: Yes, there is profanity in this book. Yes, there is discussion of teenagers doing drugs (marijuana use is mentioned) and drinking alcohol. However, this is all part of a realistic depiction of a typical American teenager's experience, and there is no glorification or promotion of any of these activities. Now, as for the remainder of the reasons listed above: it is clear to me that those who oppose this book are also those who consistently turn a blind eye to the systemic racism that plagues our country, and who respond to what should be unopposable facts with dismissive statements like "not all cops" or "all lives matter." They view a beautifully written, nuanced depiction of a situation that occurs--often to a much more devastating extent--depressingly regularly as "divisive" and "anti-police." They witness the increasingly undeniable racism and brutality of American police, the murders of Black Americans by police, and insist that addressing the core issues behind it is "too much of a sensitive matter right now."
I have no respect for those people. The appropriate response to realizing that a book written to facilitate thought and provoke discussion and action around a devastating problem in our country is even more relevant than ever five years later is not to prevent people from reading it; it is to insist that everyone read it and truly think on it, and act on it. We have known that this is a problem for so very long, and yet it remains a problem--and, if anything, has only worsened over time. I'm reminded of a quote from the book, from a scene in which Rashad is considering his situation while he is still in the hospital recovering from his encounter with the White police officer who brutalized him. Rashad's older brother, Spoony, has tracked down video of the incident and shared it with news outlets; he is refusing to let the matter drop.
I gotta admit, there was a part of me that, even though I felt abused, wanted to tell him to let it go. To just let me heal, let me leave the hospital, let me go to court, let me do whatever stupid community service they wanted me to do, and let me go back to normal. I mean, I had seen this happen so many times. Not personally, but on TV. In the news. People getting beaten, and sometimes killed, by the cops, and then there's all this fuss about it, only to build up to a big heartbreak when nothing happens. The cops get off. And everybody cries and waits for the next dead kid, to do it all over again. That's the way the story goes. A different kind of Lifetime movie. I didn't want all that. Didn't need it.
Yes, police brutality and systemic racism was a particularly "sensitive matter" in 2020--and remains so now in 2021. However, that only makes it more important that we refuse to simply drop the topic and wait for the next tragedy before bringing it up again. This problem will not resolve itself, and it is a privilege (white privilege) not everyone has to even consider ignoring the issue, let alone insisting it doesn't exist. As Quinn realizes in the book:
Nobody wants to think he's being a racist, but maybe it was a bigger problem, like everyone was just ignoring it, like it was invisible. Maybe it was all about racism? I hated that shit, and I hated thinking it had so much power over all our lives--even the people I knew best. Even me.
Nobody says the words anymore, but somehow the violence still remains. If I didn't want the violence to remain, I had to do a hell of a lot more than just say the right things and not say the wrong things.
Refusing to read All American Boys, or trying to prevent children from reading it, is a lot like noticing your kitchen is on fire and choosing to shut yourself and your children away in another room because when your house is actively on fire, that's just far too sensitive a time to try to teach fire safety. In other words: it's ridiculous and actively harmful.
I recommend this book to anyone and everyone to read. Children and adults of any age, race, or class all have something to gain from a truly thoughtful read of All American Boys. Read it together, discuss it together, and truly think about ways you can act to help effect positive change.
I am truly grateful that authors like Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely are doing the work of providing us with such potent tools to provoke introspection, critical thought, empathy, and growth.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the third installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here, and the second installment (my review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is one of my favorite books. Look for that review here on my blog on June 11. I have written a review for another of Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful YA books previously; you can find my review of Twisted here.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.