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“All American Boys” Authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely Discuss Racism, White Privilege, and Censorship in Today’s Civic Landscape, a guest post by Lisa Krok

In the midst of a week full of national dissent and tension, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely took to the stage to get real with a live audience. The Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio was the perfect venue for an intimate discussion on serious subjects. Reynolds and Kiely first became friends a few years back while touring for their debut books, When I Was the Greatest and The Gospel of Winter, respectively. The Trayvon Martin tragedy had occurred already, and after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the two friends had some candid discussions about racism and police brutality. This prompted them to begin writing All American Boys together. Told in alternating perspectives of Reynold’s black teen, Rashad Butler, and Kiely’s white teen, Quinn Collins, the story opens with Rashad being beaten by a police officer while Quinn witnesses from down the street. As the plot unfolds, family, friends, and the community have different takes as to the officer’s culpability. When protests begin with kids at school, Quinn has mixed feelings about what to do next.

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Aside from the Martin and Brown situations, the authors had their own anecdotes from their teenage years that sparked their interest in collaborating on the book.  Reynolds’ terrifying   run-in with D.C. police at age 16 while in a car with friends couldn’t be more opposite of Kiely’s tale of being pulled over while driving his mom’s minivan in Boston. While Reynolds and his black friends were presumed to be criminals, Kiely and his white friends were let off and told to go home and be safe. Why? Racism and white privilege. Both were polite and respectful to police, but nonetheless, biases prevailed. The biggest difference, according to Kiely, was that he was nervous, but didn’t have anything to fear other than being caught. “I think about the fear I never had to experience, the accountability I never had…it is a tug to remind me what it means to have white privilege in America.”

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All of this dovetails into censorship and book banning of both All American Boys and another book depicting police brutality, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Both have been challenged and/or banned in some areas, most recently in Charleston, South Carolina. When the Wando High School summer reading list included the two titles above, Charleston area police protested the books, stating that they promoted negativity and distrust of police. The three authors responded in a joint statement:

“Our books are not anti-police, they are anti-police brutality. We’re proud of the teachers at Wando HS who are using literature that reflects the lives of so many young people across this country. To deny these books from reading lists would deny too many young people the reflections of the reality they know and experience.”

-Jason Reynolds, Brendan Kiely, and Angie Thomas

Reynolds expounded upon this on stage, revealing he and Kiely have police officers in their families, and they value and respect the job police officers do. He reiterated that they are just anti-police brutality, and would love it if police were anti-police brutality, too. “We just hope that for us as a community, in order for things to shift, we gotta be able to engage and lean into these discussions…this book hopefully will serve as a platform and a framework for us to have these discussions, these uncomfortable discussions, in healthy and safe ways…It’s okay for you to disagree, just not okay for you to disengage.”

See Jason Reynolds’ impassioned remarks here:

Kiely emphasized that censorship especially impacts marginalized people. “When you are censoring over and over and over again stories that feature characters who live marginalized experiences, you are censoring the people whose lives their stories reflect. You’re censoring their life existence in your community. That to me is part of the injustice. That’s part of the real cruelty to people who live in our own communities.”  When thinking about a whole variety of marginalized experiences, it worries him when people use things like language as an excuse to censor, or use things like “well but there are choices characters make in this book,” or “we can’t have people knowing that they can make this choice and still survive.” “Censorship, in my opinion, is one of the most unethical things we can do when it comes to literature,” Kiely continues. “I think about the places where our book has been banned and think about how so many students in those communities who have experiences like Rashad and his family and his church community and the whole book and all the white kids who then don’t get an opportunity to reflect in ways that they haven’t been asked to reflect on before. That censorship is robbing them of part of their own humanity as well.”

Reynolds brought up a strong point about how people don’t get worked up about censoring video games that simulate war. “Why books?” he pondered. “Nothing else gets this kind of flak. Most cartoons are worse than the books we write, and nobody seems to care.  Ask your kids what the words in their favorite rap song are.  Ask them to rap it out for you. Nobody seems to mind as long as they’re doing the dance”.  He expressed concerns about kids who can’t afford to buy a book, and the book is taken out of their schools. Reynolds credits fellow author Laurie Halse Anderson as noting “It is the insecurity of adults that gets in the way of children.” He continues, “Everybody in this room has to make a decision to be more loyal to their futures than to their fears.”

Kiely says people don’t want to process the racism. “People use a number of excuses to talk about why the book shouldn’t come into communities. They would say well it might incite a riot.’”  It is hard for Kiely understand how this is possible. Those who have read the book know that “the book is anti-violence and it exposes the harm violence really causes families, communities. I struggle with those excuses, but I think they are all codes for ‘we don’t talk about the stuff that would make us have to shift the power dynamics that currently exist in our community.’”

Many thanks to Heights Libraries for sponsoring this event!

Books related to the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically regarding police brutality:

tyler johnsonTyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

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I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

dear martinDear Martin by Nic Stone

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

For more information, see the following resources:

https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-area-police-protest-the-hate-u-give-school-assignment/article_facc8330-7df9-11e8-8a0a-8331f0a41cbe.html

https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=15093

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=sc-police-union-challenges-summer-reading-list-hate-u-give-american-boys

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=brendan-kielys-and-jason-reynoldss-csk-author-honor-speeches-for-all-american-boys

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=making-the-personal-political-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give

http://oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/childrens-services/talking-kids-about-race-and-racism

http://sfusd.libguides.com/blacklivesmatter

https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/what-do-if-youre-stopped-police-immigration-agents-or-fbi

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-Lisa Krok is branch manager of Cleveland Public Library’s Harvard-Lee branch, a member of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers team, and a Ravenclaw. She can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Book Review: Examining Toxic Masculinity in TRADITION by Brendan Kiely

Earlier this year, both TLTer Amanda MacGregor and myself wrote posts about toxic masculinity.When we look at large mass shootings, one of the common denominators that keep occurring is that of domestic violence, which is tied in to toxic masculinity. At the most basic, toxic masculinity is defined as:

adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the “alpha male”) and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxic_masculinity

How Boys Suffer: The Boy Code and Toxic Masculinity 

Toxic masculinity is a topic that YA author Brendan Kiely takes head on in his upcoming release, TRADITION.

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Publisher’s Book Description:

From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Brendan Kiely, a stunning new novel that explores the insidious nature of tradition at a prestigious boarding school.

Prestigious. Powerful. Privileged. This is Fullbrook Academy, an elite prep school where history looms in the leafy branches over its brick walkways. But some traditions upheld in its hallowed halls are profoundly dangerous.

Jules Devereux just wants to keep her head down, avoid distractions, and get into the right college, so she can leave Fullbrook and its old-boy social codes behind. She wants freedom, but ex-boyfriends and ex-best friends are determined to keep her in place.

Jamie Baxter feels like an imposter at Fullbrook, but the hockey scholarship that got him in has given him a chance to escape his past and fulfill the dreams of his parents and coaches, whose mantra rings in his ears: Don’t disappoint us.

When Jamie and Jules meet, they recognize in each other a similar instinct for survival, but at a school where girls in the student handbook are rated by their looks, athletes stack hockey pucks in dorm room windows like notches on a bedpost, and school-sponsored dances push first year girls out into the night with senior boys, the stakes for safe sex, real love, and true friendship couldn’t be higher.

As Jules and Jamie’s lives intertwine, and the pressures to play by the rules and remain silent about the school’s secrets intensify, they see Fullbrook for what it really is. That tradition, a word Fullbrook hides behind, can be ugly, even violent. Ultimately, Jules and Jamie are faced with the difficult question: can they stand together against classmates—and an institution—who believe they can do no wrong?

Karen’s Thoughts:

I picked up Tradition solely because it was written by an author I respect. Brendan Kiely worked with us here at TLT earlier for the Sexual Violence in YA Literature project with his book The Gospel of Winter. He also co-authored All American Boy with Jason Reynolds. These are both phenomenal works of literature and I was very much looking forward to Tradition. The timing of this book is, in my opinion, perfect for our culture which is sincerely trying to discuss the issue of toxic masculinity, sexual harassment and violence, and the #metoo movement. I was in no way disappointed by this book. I knew that it would talk about sexual violence, but I was quite surprised by how straight forward it is in tackling the topic of toxic masculinity.

Jamie Baxter is a male athlete who comes from a world that embraces toxic masculinity and is thrown into a new world where it thrives. In his previous school, his views were challenged some by his girlfriend, who made him think about issues such as race and misogyny. But a very violent act makes puts his future in jeopardy and fills him with both self loathing and self doubt. As often happens, everyone in Baxter’s life goes out of his way to give him a second chance. And there is something to be said here about how many chances we give to white men who commit horrific acts as compared to how we respond when marginalized groups, such as people of color or women, commit acts that are deemed socially unacceptable. Now Baxter is thrust into this new world where he must wrestle with who he is and what he has done, but everyone wants to reward him for the very behaviors that have grievously injured another. It is anger most of all that Baxter fights against; this anger inside himself that being on the field seems to heighten. This is a culture that tells boys to “man up” or to “grow a pair.”

Baxter is given a scholarship – class issues and privilege are touched upon in this title as well – to an elite private school, but it means that he has to engage once again in a sport which encourages him to be aggressive in ways he seems to have trouble controlling when immersed in this culture. And to make matters worse, his peers are very privileged young men who wholly embrace toxic masculinity and the many myths that prop it up, including that of the sexual prowess and dominance of men. The female students at this school are seen very much as objects by his teammates and many of the school traditions encourage this treatment of the female population.

When Baxter arrives, he meets Jules. Jules is a feminist out of water in this school – and my hero! She stands in the courtyard handing out flyers for the clinic. She sets a tampon on her desk because she refused to be ashamed of the fact that she menstruates. She challenges the status quo and enlists several friends in her fight against it. These friends include a gay best friend and another outsider who is carrying some very real trauma with her.

The tensions build and the things that you are pretty sure are going to happen do in fact happen. I’m not going to lie, some of these scenes were really hard to read. But then the four friends put together a plan to raise awareness because the system, as it often does, fails them. There are a lot of powerful scenes, discussions and issues packed into this book.

Some of the things that I think that Kiely does especially well are:

He provides a really powerful contrasting sexual scene where consent is very well illustrated to balance scenes where consent is not given. This scene is so powerful and necessary and delicately handles the discussion of consent.

There is a lot of discussion here and some good examples of what it means to be an ally. Baxter takes a lot of risks in both small and big ways to stand up for what he believes his right. And there is a realistic cost to him for doing so.

Although many characters within the book question what happened to them, which is a normal response to sexual violence, at no time does the reader, which I really think is important.

There is a lot that happens around the word NO in this book and I just found it uplifting to read. Not why it happens, of course, but the ways in which the victims choose to become survivors and to be bold in stating the truth about what happened to them.

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This is a strong addition to all collections and in the discussion of both toxic masculinity and sexual violence. It is powerful, challenging, moving, heartbreaking and inspiring. The horror of what happens is boldly proclaimed the true horror that it is. Adults are portrayed in more than one way. The realities of the issues are laid out in no uncertain terms. I highly recommend this as a companion novel to Sex & Violence by Carries Mesrobian for a complex look at toxic masculinity.

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I also highly recommend the recent work of Chessy Prout, #IHaveTheRightTo, which is her very real experience of sexual assault at an elite boarding school told in her own words. I think it is very important that we take this fictional narrative written by a male and put it with this real life experience told from a female survivor.