All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds was published in 2015, but the novel is just as relevant today.
The chapters alternate between characters as the story unfolds. All American Boys depicts the modern high school experience through two lenses: Quinn is white. Rashad is black. Their lives intertwine in this powerful, well-told story of police brutality and the aftermath.
Rashad is wrongly accused of shoplifting and badly beaten by a police officer. Quinn is nearby and sees it happen. Quinn grapples with his reaction to it–the police officer is a close family friend.
Why teach this novel?
There is no simple solution to racism, but teachers have a role to play. In an interview with NPR, Jason Reynolds said that most of the time, kids are ready to talk about racial issues, even if the adults feel uncomfortable. As hard as having those conversations can be, teachers are role models and need to provide a place for kids to be heard. Literature like this can be a great starting point.
…many of us in America, especially those of us who are white who have escaped this kind of brutality….recognize that we do have a role to play, that we can’t just shut it off and pretend it’s not there.Brendan Kiely, in an interview with NPR
Who should read this book?
This book is most appropriate for upper middle school and high school readers, age 13 and up. It includes some strong language and descriptions of police brutality.
Reluctant readers will enjoy this book. It depicts scenarios like the ones that kids are seeing on the news and on social media every day. It also does so in a way that is relevant and relatable, with modern situations and dialogue.
All American Boys could easily complement or replace The Outsiders on required reading lists; both novels share themes of life on both sides of the tracks, and the experiences kids share when worlds collide.
After Rashad is brutalized by a police officer, he is in the hospital for an extended period. Meanwhile, his classmates begin a campaign to draw attention to his case, drawing the phrase in sidewalk graffiti, “Rashad is absent again today.”
The novel concludes with a powerful protest scene that acknowledge the untimely deaths of many unarmed black Americans: Aiyanna Jones. Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Tarika Wilson. At a protest, their names are called out, followed by the chilling refrain that they are “absent again today.”
Don’t just take my word for it. In 2016, All American Boys won both the Coretta Scott King Author Honor award and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. The novel is a step towards bridging the divide in society. Your students will enjoy it, learn from it, and hopefully use it to reflect on current events and the fight for social justice.
Want to teach this novel?
I hope I’ve convinced you to pick up this book, and maybe even try teaching it. To help guide your teaching and save you some prep work, you can check out my novel unit for All American Boys here.
All proceeds from the sale of this novel unit will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and inequality.
Do you enjoy teaching novels with relevant themes? Check out this blog post about a perfect novel to teach alongside the #MeToo movement.