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Authors Of 'All American Boys' Talk About How Book Has Sparked Race Discussion

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Authors Of 'All American Boys' Talk About How Book Has Sparked Race Discussion

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Authors Of 'All American Boys' Talk About How Book Has Sparked Race Discussion

Authors Of 'All American Boys' Talk About How Book Has Sparked Race Discussion

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All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Simon hide caption

toggle caption Simon

All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Simon

In All American Boys, a video of a policeman beating a black student goes viral. The book's authors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, talk about how their story is sparking conversations about race.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes, a good idea and fate collide to create an interesting opportunity. That's what happened with "All American Boys," a young adult novel whose co-authors chose a contentious subject, racial profiling.

Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's "Code Switch" team talked with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to discover the story behind their story.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds were both authors with the same publisher, but they didn't meet until 2013 when Simon & Schuster sent them on a group tour of male authors. While they were on the road, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. That sparked national outrage and protests. Jason Reynolds remembers his discomfort.

JASON REYNOLDS: And so here I am on this tour. I'm angry, I'm frustrated, and I'm sort of wrought with emotion. (Laughter) And I'm traveling and living with a stranger.

BATES: But soon he discovers he and Brendan Kiely had more in common than he thought.

REYNOLDS: It turns out, though, that as the conversation eventually arose that he was as frustrated and as angry and as confused and as upset as I was. And so we started to talk about these things.

BATES: They became not just colleagues, but friends and continued talking until something else happened the next year.

REYNOLDS: And in August, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, and that was sort of the final straw. And Brendan actually came to me, and he said look, man, I can't take anymore. Like, we have to do something. Will you write this book with me? Can we do this thing together? And, you know, who says no to that, you know?

BATES: The result is "All American Boys," a short novel told in alternate chapters by high school classmates Quinn who is white and Rashad who is black.

The tension is established pretty early on. Rashad is wrongly accused of shoplifting in a convenience store. A policeman in the store drags Rashad outside and beats him so badly he has to be hospitalized. Quinn is nearby. He sees the whole thing and just wants it to go away. But a number of people documented the beatdown on their cells and pressed send.

Soon it's on the news and in social media. Everybody's seen the video except Quinn, who refuses to look. The policeman is a close family friend.

BRENDAN KIELY: (Reading) No way I was watching that video - I wanted to erase the whole damn memory from my mind. But I couldn't because it was like the whole damn high school had been there on the street with me. Everybody had seen it.

BATES: That's Brendan Kiely reading a passage in Quinn's voice.

Kiely says Quinn is concerned but in an abstract way. He wants to pretend he hasn't seen Rashad get beaten.

KIELY: But ultimately, he knows he can't because he has to acknowledge it and see it. You know, he might not be in the video, but he was on the street. That's a metaphor for him and, I think, for many of us in America, especially those of us who are white who have escaped this kind of brutality, to recognize that we do have a role to play, that we can't just shut it off and pretend it's not there.

BATES: Rashad, meanwhile, has to convince his father of his innocence. His parents always instructed him how to act when he meets police to assure them he's harmless. Jason Reynolds says he got the same lecture from his parents when he was Rashad's age.

REYNOLDS: Think people believe that as long as you carry yourself respectively that you won't be victimized.

BATES: In this passage, Rashad's parents see him in the hospital for the first time. His nose has been broken, his ribs, too. One eye is swollen shut.

REYNOLDS: (Reading) Ma was clearly horrified. But Dad - he had on that son-you-aren't-telling-me-everything look. And it was clear that, to him, I had to have done something wrong to bring this on. Well, were your pants sagging? - Dad interrogated, now back over by the door. Were my pants sagging? - I repeated, shocked by the question. What does that have to do with anything?

BATES: Rashad's pants weren't, but that's beside the point, says Reynolds.

REYNOLDS: And even if it isn't the case - even if a young person does have his pants sagging, that doesn't mean that he deserves to be brutalized.

BATES: Eventually, the school then the town divide over whether the policeman who beat Rashad stepped over the line or was just doing his job. Neighbors don't speak. School friendships are broken. But Quinn comes to see that condoning racial profiling, especially when it results in violence, is wrong. He chooses a side.

Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds say they hope their book will be a jumping off point for kids who want to discuss race, even when it makes their parents squirm.

REYNOLDS: But no matter what the adults say, nine times out of ten, the young people are ready to talk.

BATES: "All American Boys" may give them a way into that conversation.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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'All American Boys': A Young Adult Book About A Police Beating And A Hard Choice

It's art imitating life, really. All American Boys is a young adult novel that looks at a specific instance of police brutality from the perspectives of two high school classmates: Rashad, who is savagely beaten by a local policeman who (wrongly) suspects him of shoplifting and assaulting a white woman, and Quinn, who sees the beating and initially pretends he didn't. It's a fictional reflection of real-life police encounters with young black men that ended badly.

Co-authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely had written young-adult books separately for publisher Simon and Schuster when they were asked to go on a group tour of male authors. The two, both New Yorkers, ended up sharing a room, and while they were on the road, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

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Reynolds, who is African American, remembers what it was like being on tour at that time. "I'm angry and I'm frustrated and I'm sort of wrought with emotion — and I'm traveling and living with a stranger," he says. A white stranger at that.

They got to talking about it all, and it turned out Kiely was experiencing similar feelings. "He was as frustrated as angry and as confused as I was," says Reynolds. They talked themselves into a genuine friendship, where race was often a topic of conversation.

The conversation became even more urgent the following August, when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. "That was the final straw," Reynolds remembers. Brendan came to me and said 'Look man, I can't take it anymore. We have to do something. Will you write this book with me? Can we do this thing together?'"

The result is a story about racial profiling and police brutality that makes Rashad a rallying cry against police brutality.

In the book, after Rashad's beating — which was captured on cell phones by onlookers and spread virally through social media — he recuperates in the hospital. He's appalled to find himself the center of attention, in a spotlight he doesn't want. Supporters in his high school and around town take up the cause with a phrase that is graffiti'ed on sidewalks and the town's walls: Rashad Is Absent Again Today.

Meanwhile, Quinn wrestles with what he's seen. It's complicated by the fact that the cop who beat Rashad is a close family friend — his best friend's big brother. Quinn can't believe the man he knows would beat anyone if the person on the receiving end didn't deserve it. He's always seen police as protectors. He wants the whole thing to just go away.

Brendan Kiely, the co-author of All American Boys, wanted Quinn to not have that option. Quinn, he says "has to acknowledge [the beating] and see it. That's a metaphor for him and, I think, for many of us in America, especially those of us who are white and who have escaped this kind of brutality." Kiely says sympathetic white people "have to recognize that we do have a role to play."

Ultimately Quinn has to make a decision, one that may cost him something in the near future: friends, a missed opportunity for a scholarship, etc. How he resolves that is at the heart of All American Boys.

Kiely says as he and Reynolds cross the country on tour, the book has really resonated in inner-cities, especially the city they both live in: "In New York City, a place where stop and frisk has been a policy in place for many years, there were kids who'd come to school every day, or leave school every day, and experience this kind of racial profiling."

In another city, he said, "We got a question from a kid who said 'What can a young white person do who knows this is wrong, but just doesn't feel I have a way into this?'"

Jason Reynolds believes that even as many adults shy away from talking about race, their kids are anxious to have that conversation. "No matter what the adults say, nine times out of ten, the kids are ready to talk."

All American Boys may help them get there.

Note: this excerpt contains strong language.

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