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Books on the Blog: YA Books to Spark Real Discussions about American Race Relations

by Kelly Virgindear martinIn the first chapter of Dear Martin by Nic Stone Justyce McAllister, an Ivy League bound, black teenager, is handcuffed and detained by the police when they mistakenly assume he is up to something as he attempts to keep his drunk and slightly belligerent ex-girlfriend from driving herself home. This incident is understandably jarring for the teen and he thinks to himself:

Yeah, there are no more “colored” water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.

In an attempt to come to terms with the experience and to deal with the pressures he feels from the neighborhood he managed to escape and the prep school he doesn’t entirely fit into, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, tragedy strikes his life and he starts to question whether Dr. King’s teachings still apply to the world we live in today. 

This book offers insight into the reality black men face in our society. Through the experience of Justyce, we see what it is like to live in fear while trying to go about your daily life. It broaches sensitive topics while telling a hooking story about loss, love, and growing up.

all american boys

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely tells the story of the act and aftermath of a police beating in alternating points of view: one black and one white. Rashad, the son of a former cop and a member of the Junior ROTC, is violently arrested when an accidental encounter with a woman in a convenience store leads the white police officer on duty to assume he is stealing. In an instant, Rashad’s thoughts shifted from the party he was planning to attend with his boys later that night to:

My brain exploded into a million thoughts and the only one at the same time
kill me. 

While Rashad is being beaten into unconsciousness on the pavement outside the store, Quinn, the best friend of the cop’s kid brother, rounds the corner and becomes an unwilling witness to a reality he didn’t realize still existed. At first he tries to ignore and forget the incident, but as the story breaks and the media hype explodes, he realizes:


Both teens are forced to deal with a truth they don’t want to face as they realize racism and prejudice still run through the fabric of our country.  While the story is fiction, it is based on and blends in the realities of police brutality, especially when the names of some of the recent victims are read in a roll call.

“AIYANA JONES!” “Absent again today!” “FREDDIE GRAY!” “Absent again today!” “MICHAEL BROWN!” “Absent again today!” “TAMIR RICE!” “Absent again today!” “ERIC GARNER!” “Absent again today!” “TARIKA WILSON!” “Absent again today!”

Due to the mature themes and language, both books would work best in a high school classroom. Since the stories are situated in the realities of today, they would pair well with a current events study of related incidents. They each also present a critique of the ways the media reacts to such situations and can spark thoughtful conversations about the topic. Ultimately, these books serve as a reminder to the epigraph found at the front of All American Boys: “History can only teach its lesson if it is remembered” by Carmelo Soto. What books do you use with your students to remember the lessons of our history?

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