Three Things to Learn from All American Boys

If you are a writer, you probably already know that there is a lot you can learn from reading.  I just finished listening to All American Boys by Jason Reynold and Brendan Kiely.

For those of you who don’t know the book, Rashad is on his way to a party when he stops at the local market for chips.  He is getting his phone out of his duffel, digging around trying to find it under his ROTC uniform, when another shopper, a white professional woman, backs up and falls over him.  Because Rashad is a black teen, assumptions are made and a police officers decides he has to stick up for the victim, the woman.  He beats Rashad even after cuffing the young man and throwing him to the sidewalk.  One of Rashad’s classmates, Quinn, sees what is happening and initially fails to recognize Rashad but is still freaked out because the cop is his best friend’s brother.  The story follows the lives of both teens and how they change as Rashad is released from the hospital.

It is an incredibly powerful book made all the more so by the fact that it pulls no punches.  But that isn’t the only reason it is a great teaching tool.  It is also incredibly well written.  While there are many things you can learn about writing from this book, I’m going to focus on three.

Beginnings and endings that work together.  I’m going to talk about the ending so this paragraph is a plot spoiler.  When the book opens, Rashad’s ROTC class is ending. He talks about marching and how much he dislikes the uniform.  The closing scene of the book is a march, protesting Rashad’s beating and police violence against blacks.  Rashad thinks about how different the march is from marching because they are moving as one but without the form and tight formation of military march.  Several of his ROTC classmates come to the march and because it is on uniform day, they are in uniform.  

The ending of this book, with the students feeling like they have to march because it is their social responsibility, strengthens the beginning where Rashad was required to march.  But each part strengthens the others because of meaningful props.

Meaningful props. I don’t remember what the event was but I remember Linda Sue Park talking about adding items into a story.  She was talking about A Single Shard and she said that if something is important enough to mention once, it is important enough to make several appearances in the story.   In All American Boys, props include:

  • Uniforms and other military items.  Rashad is in jr. ROTC, Quinn’s Dad was a soldier who gave his life in service, and the police in their community arrive at the protest in military level gear.
  • Chips.  In and of themselves, chips don’t seem all that important but it is what Rashad was buying when he was in the story. Because of this, the chips come up again and again, and a new friend brings him chips in the hospital.
  • Art.  Rashad is an artist who as a boy took his inspiration from Family Circus in that he wanted to show a more realistic family but he still framed his work in a circle.  His art also reflects his character growth.

Character growth. Again with the plot spoilers. Because this is a story told in two voices, both Rashad and Quinn need to grow.  It would have been easy to focus on Quinn’s character growth since he has to learn that being racist is more than acting violent or hateful.  It can also mean doing nothing.  For his part, Rashad’s growth is initially seen through his art.  By the end of the story, which before had been shadowy, now have faces and features just as the people to whom violence is done are meaningful individuals.

There are so many things this book does well.  I’ve heard the authors speak about the inspiration.  I would love to hear there reflections on the writing process.