Sunday, October 11, 2015

ALL-AMERICAN BOYS & Why My Students Needed to Read This Book

Authors: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (Simon & Schuster imprint)
Release Date: September 29, 2015
Number of Pages: 320
Source of Book: Bound Manuscript from Publisher
Recommended for: 7th grade & up

      In an unforgettable new novel from award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.
      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. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
      Written in tandem by two award-winning authors, this tour de force shares the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn as the complications from that single violent moment, the type taken from the headlines, unfold and reverberate to highlight an unwelcome truth.

My thoughts:

I'm not sure my words will be able to adequately express the importance of this book and the urgency I feel to get it into hands of my urban teens specifically, and all teens generally. 

This is a book to start conversations, in our classrooms and with each other. It's a book to make you take a step back and look at bias in your own life. 

The power in this book lies in the stripped down simplicity-two boys, two views, one incident, which, through the honesty and realness of the characters who are dealing with complex issues of race, community, perceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions, is able to address a timely issue in a way teens will be able to relate to without feeling lectured at. 

Reynolds and Kiely have written a story that stays true to the teen voice and the inner struggle of trying to understand things that don't make sense, and wanting to change but not knowing how, wanting to fight for what's right in the face of outside pressures, and how that all impacts relationships with family and friends. 

It's a gut-wrenching book because of how easy it was for me to picture my own students' faces and voices in place of Rashad's & Quinn's, and in how it made me think about privilege while keeping the focus on these characters and the many real people who have been affected by racial incidents of police brutality. I especially appreciated that the two characters were the forefront, but had friends, teachers, and family who all affected their actions and decisions in a true to life way. 

It's honest, real, powerful, and oh so important. 

It's a book people need to read. 


This book is so important I chose to use it as a shared read aloud with my 8th graders. We were lucky enough to have Reynolds & Kiely visiting Milwaukee on tour and our local independent bookstore, Boswell Books, facilitated having them visit our school. Jason visited my students last year, and they couldn't stop talking about how much they enjoyed the visit and asking when he would be coming back. There was such a strong connection from them for what he shared, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to host him again so soon, and for this book in particular. 

I've never heard a classroom full of 8th graders as quiet as when I've been reading this book.

We've already had powerful discussions about perceptions vs lies; how knowing someone's story can change our views; what our immediate reactions might teach us about biases; our anger, hurt, and fear about the realities of racism; how hard it can be to say what you're thinking with difficult topics; the way media portrays black youth; the difficulty of standing up for what's right; and how the way we present ourselves can impact opinions. 
I'm eager to see where time for deeper analysis will take these kids.

I'm so proud of the respect they've shown this topic and their willingness to embrace this book - they've been thoroughly engaged from the first page through the serious, funny, and relatable. I only get them for two years, we only read this book for two weeks, but I know the impact will last far beyond that.

Thank you Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely for writing this book that provokes thought, addresses perceptions and realities, and begs for discussion. 
My 8th graders may not yet realize or know how to thank you for all of this
...but it matters...they matter...they are seen...they are seeing...and this book shows them that.

I asked my 8th graders to share initial thoughts after we finished the last page of the book. This is what they had to say:
"All-American Boys is amazing. I'm literally at a loss of words to explain how I feel. It was so powerful." (Larry)
"I think this book is really good. But there's more than just good. There is a deeper meaning to the book." (Harrison) 
"This book is so powerful. It has let everyone know about racism that has been going around lately." (Madelyn) 
"[The authors] produced a thoughtful way to write about what is going on these days."(Malik) 
"I feel this book had a goal to have you look at society different and it did..." (Alex) 
"I liked this book a lot! It is definitely a part of my Top 10. I think it is a different way to talk about police brutality. I am scared for my black family." (Aalisiyah) 
"All-American Boys was a really powerful story. Altogether the story was amazing." (anon) 
"This book gives the best inside look on black and white societies and perspectives of teenagers." (Kimi) 
"All-American Boys really affected me. Why are black people portrayed as the bad guy? I think this book shows that this is wrong. People appear to be more racist than they think. It's sad that not many people notice this." (Carlos) 
"I think most people can relate to this book." (Rosita) 
"These are things that are happening today, police brutality. It's not just in the book, it's in real life this stuff happens in real life. And it's not fair." (Roman)

Those reactions, and the discussions that will follow, are why I feel this book was so important to share with my urban students, and why I hope All-American Boys will be shared widely with students across the country.

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