Dear Social Media: Thank you for Dear Martin by Rebecca Marsick

My Twitter and Instagram feeds are heavily weighted toward authors and readers who share what they are reading, and my social media scales tip even more toward YA. This means that I am constantly buying books that will serve two purposes:

 

  1. I think my students will like them.
  2. I think the book will offer a new and diverse perspective.

 

I am a secondary literacy coach in a predominately upper middle class, white, suburban high school. The students I work with care deeply about many social issues, but they don’t often come into contact with people who are different from themselves. Therefore, when I encounter a book like Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I can barely contain my excitement, and my credit card immediately incurs another charge.

 

Like Starr in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Jade in Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together, Stone’s protagonist, Justyce McAllister, is a black teenager who has left his home in the inner city to attend a wealthy school where most of the student population is white. The novel opens with him leaving a party on the heels of his very intoxicated girlfriend because he is desperately trying to take her keys so she will not drive. While the two are arguing in a parking lot, the police drive by and Jus ends up in handcuffs.

 

A victim of both circumstance and racial profiling, Jus struggles with this arrest and his subsequent anger because he knows he did nothing wrong. In fact, he is an Ivy-bound student who has never had a brush with the law. As a way to try and understand the current racial climate and deal with his own emotions, Jus begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., questioning both the climate during the Civil Rights Movement and how King was able to use nonviolent means to foster change.

 

The story unfolds from here, and while Jus’s experiences are recounted in third person, they are woven in between the first person letters he is writing to King. While the plot is certainly riveting, what struck me most was Stone’s use of dialogue to help express the myriad ideas that teenagers have when discussing issues of race.  Jus is captain of the debate team, and Stone uses this activity to create many of the potentially charged conversations in which the teenagers engage. Under the watchful eye of their teacher, Dr. Dray, the students debate issues surrounding race, from the relevance of affirmative action to whether or not the United States has really achieved racial equality.

 

I have heard similar conversations echoing through the classrooms and halls of my school. While reading, I found myself cringing at Jus’s white “friends” who believed that he only got into Yale because of affirmative action because I have heard these same arguments in my own community. Yet, Stone does not vilify these students; rather, her brilliance is that she uses the natural dialogue between these characters to convey ways that we can ALL engage in difficult conversations about race to come to a deeper understanding of the historical context behind racism in our country.

 

Jus is a typical teen, one who can’t get rid of a toxic girlfriend, argues with his mom, has both fun and conflict with his friends, and works hard in his senior year to get into his dream school. There is so much that teenagers can relate to in this book, but there is even more that teens and adults can learn from it.

 

As Nic Stone said in a recent interview with Huffington Post, “I think YA fiction has the power to change the world because it reaches young people while their views are still forming.” This is exactly why we need to have students from all backgrounds reading Dear Martin today. Young adult fiction can be the catalyst for the conversations that will create the forward thinking leaders we hope all of our students will become.

 

So, I am continuing to scroll through my Twitter and Instagram feeds for my next credit card charge. Because nothing is more worth it than a book that can make young minds shift their thinking.

 

Rebecca Marsick is a secondary literacy coach and an avid stalker of authors and book lists. She believes that we need to help all students at least discover a “like” of reading, if not a love of it; therefore, she spends much of her time reading, talking about reading, and sharing what she is reading with everyone around her. You can follow her on Twitter @RebeccaMarsick or see what she is reading on Instagram @marsickreads.