Young adult authors tackle troubles from the headlines

"All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; Antheum Books for Young Readers (320 pages, $17.99) (Simon & Schuster)

Have you ever picked up a book you didn't expect to like, but before you'd finished the first page, you were hooked?

That happened to me with "All American Boys," by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Where my pleasure reading typically runs toward women's fiction, mystery and suspense, this is a book about teen boys embroiled in a politically charged situation, intended for teens and younger. Still, I'm curious about all books, so when it was dropped off at the office for promotional purposes, I opened it and started skimming.

"Zoom in. Zoom in more. A little more. A boy, grainy. Facedown on the pavement. A man above him. Fists raining like stones. Howling, lights and sirens. Blood on the street. The boy is still moving. And then he is not."

That's from an inside preview, before the first page of the book. Already I wanted to more.


"All American Boys" is the story of Rashad Butler, an 11th grader at Springfield Central High School with a circle of good friends, "decent" grades and "mad" art skills. He joins his school's ROTC program to quiet his father who has been nagging him that "there's no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army." Rashad has a healthy respect for his parents, and he diligently toes the line of good behavior that his parents, especially his father, have drawn.

One Friday after school, he changes from his ROTC uniform into the teen uniform of baggy street clothes, stops at a convenience store for a snack and chances into an innocent mishap with a fellow shopper. A nearby clerk misinterprets what he sees and accuses Rashad of trying to shoplift a bag of potato chips. That small misunderstanding snowballs into an arrest and a beat-down by a nearby police officer.

The beating is witnessed by Quinn, a white boy in 12th grade at Springfield Central who's known for his "All-American fifteen-foot deadeye jump shot and an All-American 3.5 GPA." Quinn, forced to play substitute dad for his younger brother since their father was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, dulls the pain of his reality by pilfering bourbon from his mother's stash while she's at work and places his bets for escape on dreams of basketball stardom at Duke.

When Quinn stops at the convenience store to pick up beer for a Friday night party and runs smack into an all-too-real scene of a cop beating a kid he thinks he recognizes from school, he panics. He runs. He keeps his mouth shut. The officer is the older brother of a friend, a man also charged with caring for his family after a father is lost to war. Quinn is torn over loyalty to his friend's family, and a conscience that won't let him forget what he's seen.

What follows is straight from recent national headlines — a community split by skin color and perception. From the book jacket: "Rashad and Quinn — one black, one white, both American — face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn't die after the civil rights movement. There's a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent (from school) because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world."

"All American Boys" is written in a colorful and casual style that pulls you so crisply and cleanly into Rashad's and Quinn's worlds, you might not be aware you've left your own. Told in alternating points of view, from Rashad to Quinn — by Reynolds and Kiely, the story paints a vivid picture of the racial tensions that threaten to tear their town apart, and how each deals with friends' and neighbors' reactions to the events.

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