A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?
But there were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality … Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before. — [X]
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is one of those books that I had pretty high expectations for and to be perfectly honestly, it does not disappoint. In fact, it far exceeded my expectations.
As the synopsis says, the book follows two male protagonists, Rashad (whose POV is written by Jason Reynolds) and Quinn (whose POV is written by Brendan Kiely), and how their shared community folds in on itself following the brutal beating of Rashad at the hands of a cop that Quinn knows all too well. Now, dual POVs are already difficult enough to write in a way that doesn’t constantly pull readers in and out of the narrative, but when they are written by two completely different people with completely different backgrounds? I’m just saying it could have gone one of two ways, but I really shouldn’t have assumed that Reynolds and Kiely would have produced anything less than excellent.
The way that each of the boys’ narrative seemingly meander, only to join in unexpected and poignant ways is incredibly well done. Both authors are mindful in every minute detail thrown into either boys’ story, in order to precisely demonstrate the way that the boys’ lives feel so disparate, and yet, how in some ways their lives mirror one another. For instance, Rashad has no choice but to be at the centre of things. He may want not to think about this, but in reality, he has no choice to but to think of how he is being represented in the media, what people are saying about, why people think of him the way they do:
I was pissed about the photo, and to be honest, a little embarrassed by it, but I knew Spoony had a point. I would’ve hated for them to put up some picture of me hanging with Carlos, posing with my middle fingers up. Even though … well … never mind.
Quinn, on the hands, wants to use his choice to not think:
Didn’t talking about it just make it worse for all of us? Did everything have to be about Paul and Rashad?
However, whatever they choose individually, their stories are already entwined together:
On Tuesday morning, everything changed–for real.
Spray painted in wide, loopy neon-blue letters like a script of stars so bright they glowed in the day … A tag so huge every single student, teacher, administrator, staff member, parent, and visitor to Springfield Central has to step over or around, could not miss:
RASHAD IS ABSENT AGAIN TODAY
All this to say, the writing and the pacing were both done wonderfully. As for the characters themselves, I have to say, I have not yet met a cast of characters that I enjoyed reading with such uniform pleasure. Usually, I fixate on one character and only reluctantly shift my focus to other characters, but All American Boys had some very interesting supporting characters, from Rashad’s friends who stand by him through it all–especially Carlos who turns his feelings into politically aware graffiti–to Rashad’s complicated ex-cop father, to Quinn’s crush who listens to the facts and reacts accordingly. There are minor characters like the school’s mathematics teacher and Rashad’s friend at the hospital gift shop, who also manage to make big impressions on the lead characters as well as readers.
As for Rashad and Quinn themselves, they could not be more interesting, more complex, more well, real? Both protagonists need to be brave, and even if they unite for similar causes, it is made clear that their bravery must come from different circumstances. Rashad, who feels divorced from the events occurring around his assault, who relives the moment every night, but can’t seem to connect himself with the boy being beaten on every news channel, is so well written. His feelings of fear, humiliation, trauma, anger, and eventually, hope, are rendered realistically and respectfully. It should be difficult to read, but it only reminds you that it is much more difficult to go through. Rashad’s muddled feelings, his urge to do, his moments of clarity are all mirrored in Quinn, though in slightly different ways. I especially love how Quinn, who feels like he owes his allegiance to Paul, the cop who beat Rashad, is written with such with care and awareness.
Honestly, I cannot find any faults with this book. I suppose there will be some who will complain that it is too “on the nose”? But racism like the kind depicted in this book is, unfortunately, not a recent thing. It has been happening for ages now. It’s one of the reasons why The Black Panthers even existed. And, more recently, it’s why Jacqueline Woodson wrote If You Come Softly the way she did. These are histories that people would like to forget, the truth behind the deaths that people would like to ignore, but if there is any hope of a future without this kind of violence, books like All American Boys need to exist and they need to be as self-aware as they can be. It’s why, I expect, they chose the following as one of the epigraphs:
History can only teach its lesson if it is remembered. — Carmelo Soto
I just cannot recommend this book enough. If possible, read alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.