All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely – Response by Teresa Bunner & Jillian Heise
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.
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. – Simon and Schuster
Having both had the opportunity to read an advance copy of All-American Boys, and then read it with classrooms of diverse students, we decided a “review” of this book should follow the alternating pov structure of the book.
What was your reaction to reading the book?
Teresa – I always know when Jillian says “You HAVE to read this book” that I am in for something good. And this was no exception. When I finished the book, I knew this was one I needed to make sure got into the hands of students.
Rashad and Quinn’s voices are powerful and real. While dealing with an incredibly weighty topic, the authors have stayed true to the ages and experiences of their characters and still give readers so much to think about.
Jillian – I’m pretty sure the first thing I did upon finishing was text Teresa and tell her I needed her to read this book, because I know the students she & I work with need this book, and because I needed someone to talk to about it. I had a sense of deep urgency to share this with my students. This was in July, and I immediately started making plans to do a shared read with my 8th graders because this book begs for discussion.
The power in this book is that it stays true to the teen voice, while feeling so honest, yet gut-wrenching at the same time. I could all too easily picture my own students’ faces and voices in place of Rashad & Quinn’s. It’s a powerful and oh so important book.
How did students respond?
Teresa – I must confess I was a little jealous that Jillian had an opportunity to share this book with students. Being out of the classroom, I figured the closest I would get was to convince other teachers to share the book. Then fate intervened and offered a chance to teach in a 9th grade class of 14 diverse young men. I couldn’t hope for a more appropriate audience.
From the first, the book engaged them. But they can say it better than I can:
“I really like that it was written by two authors. You get different perspectives.” (Muhammad)
“I liked that the main characters didn’t back down in what they believed in.” (Ahmed)
“When reading this book, you will learn how to stand up for yourself. It makes you stronger.” (Vander)
“I like how Rashad and Quinn’s viewpoints came together.” (Omari)
“I like how they came out at the start of the book with straight fire. It hooks you and you get into it.” (Derrick)
“I like it because this is stuff that is happening today.” (O.J.)
These young men were invested in our discussions about perspectives, biases and how they affect our actions. They connected the book time and time again to current events and to their own experiences.
Jillian – I teach urban Native students who were lucky enough to have Jason Reynolds for an author visit last year, and he spoke to them on their level in a way I’ve never seen before. They related to him. They were eager to do a whole-class shared read of this book. And even I was amazed, as I have never before heard a class of 8th graders as quiet as these kids were while I was reading aloud – sometimes for long periods of time.
Hear it in their words:
“All-American Boys is amazing. I’m literally at a loss of words to explain how I feel. It was so powerful.” (Larry)
“I feel this book had a goal to have you look at society different and it did…” (Alex)
“I think it is a different way to talk about police brutality. I am scared for my black family.” (Aalisiyah)
“This book gives the best inside look on black and white societies and perspectives of teenagers.” (Kimi)
“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)
My students blew me away with the powerful discussions they had about perceptions vs lies; how knowing someone’s story can change our views; what our immediate reactions might teach us about biases; their 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 the media portrays youth; the difficulty of standing up for what’s right; and how the way we present ourselves can impact opinions.
Why is this a critical book for our time?
Teresa – The events in the book are played in headlines across cities in our country every day. Students want to talk about the events, to make sense of what is happening around them. This book takes on one of the social justice issues of our day. It does it with grace and dignity, but also without excuse and looks at it straight on. If we seek to share literature with our students which connects with their lives and addresses themes and issues relevant across time, I can’t think of a recent book more appropriate than this. These are ideas we should all be wrestling with and reflecting upon.
Jillian – I knew this was a book to start conversations, in our classrooms and with each other. And that’s what I think is needed-conversations about what’s going on with teens who hear about it, see it, experience it. Reynolds & Kiely have written a book that gets kids thinking about bias and racism and stereotyping, what is right and what is wrong, and how there are always multiple sides to a story and it’s important to know the other perspectives. They have created an accessible entry point to thinking about these issues and talking about them in classrooms with the teens who read this book. It’s a book to make you take a step back and look at bias in your own life. It’s a book I think everyone in our society needs to read right now and discuss with others. This is the book I’d been waiting for to use as a whole class novel – the one that would relate to and matter to my students, and the one that would make them talk about these issues that affect their lives, and help them gain perspective.
If you’d like to hear more about the authors’ viewpoints on how this book came to be and their thoughts, you’ll want to watch this interview on NBC.
Teresa Bunner is a Coordinating Teacher for HS Literacy in Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina. She works with teachers and literacy coaches across the district promoting literacy efforts and the power of reading in students’ lives. She is also the proud mama of four boys of her own. She blogs (when she remembers) at Building Bridges and can be found on Twitter as @rdngteach.
Jillian Heise, NBCT, teaches 7th & 8th graders at Indian Community School of Milwaukee. Her favorite part of teaching is being able to share books with the adolescents they are written for and hear what they think about them. She also serves at Chair of the WSRA Children’s Literature Committee. Jillian blogs at Heise Reads & Recommends and can often be found recommending books on twitter, @heisereads.