In the spring of 2016, students at Brooklyn Friends School blocked the school’s entryway. It was the middle of the day; any teachers who had left for lunch couldn’t return. That is, until they met the students’ demands to address the racism in the curriculum and the racist behavior of some staff members.
That’s when authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely arrived to give a presentation about their book All American Boys, which addresses police brutality, white privilege, and youth activism. The students were clear: Reynolds and Kiely were not coming in. They could leave, or they could stand with the protestors, but they were not giving their presentation that day.
Reynolds and Kiely locked arms with the students for hours.
“The wild thing is, this is the exact reason why everyone was afraid [for us] to come to their schools,” Reynolds says. “This is what they thought we were gonna do. It’s not us who did it. The kids were doing it.”
In September 2015, Reynolds and Kiely published All American Boys, which depicts a week in the lives of two kids from the same high school. As Rashad, a Black ROTC cadet and artist, decides what flavor chips to buy from the corner store, he’s beaten by a white police officer. Quinn, a white basketball player on his way to a party, witnesses the attack and realizes that the perpetrator is a local hero who has been his father figure after his own was killed in Afghanistan. As Rashad heals and contemplates what it means to be a rallying point, Quinn realizes his own white privilege and the flaws in his idol—and the system that keeps people like him in power. It went on to be a bestseller and win prizes including the inaugural Walter Dean Meyers Award. (In another life, I was lucky enough to be the publicist for this book. I no longer work in publicity, so I have no personal stake in whether people read it… but they should.)“It would be dope if, like, for the ten-year anniversary the book goes out of print.”
Five years may not seem like a long time ago, but let’s remember: When this book was published, Obama would still be president for over a year. Racist showman Donald Trump had been an outsider presidential candidate for just three months. Calls for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice rang out through the streets, but the world did not yet know the names George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Tony McDade or Philando Castille or Sandra Bland or or or. A protest depicted at the end of the book names Black people killed by police: Sean Bell, Rekia Boyd, Ramarley Graham… Reading it now, the list seems grimly incomplete.
For the better part of a year, Reynolds and Kiely traveled around the country, speaking to people who were relieved to see a book like this exist, and those who saw it as anticop propaganda. Both have published other books since (Reynolds is the current National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature), but at the time they were relatively new authors, shedding light on a continued national crisis that many Americans would rather ignore.
Now, while the US has a long-overdue reckoning with race, All American Boys remains as vital, if less controversial, than it was then. The kids who read it in high school are adults. The world has changed since it’s been published. And also, it hasn’t.
This book, its authors, and the conversations around it are a study in duality. A Black and a white character written by a Black and a white author. Paired narratives of racism and privilege, which Reynolds and Kiely, respectively, have experienced firsthand. The expectations of the book versus its reality—it is not anti-police, but anti-police brutality; it is not about Black death, it is about survival. The white and Black students they visited and rich and poor schools. The people saying yes, finally, and the people saying, no, never.
“Both stories in the book are about survival because the only way to talk about survival is for both of those stories to exist,” Kiely says. “For Quinn to sort of pull the wool off of his eyes and begin to see the actual reality, not the reality he wishes—that’s required for survival.”
Kiely and Reynolds became friends while on a group tour for their debut novels in 2014. The disparity between how the two moved through the country was stark.
Kiely noticed that in airports, Reynolds was searched and he was not. He saw the differing reactions of school security guards and teachers, when a Black man with tattoos and locs walked in, versus an Irish blond. After days of talking about books with teens, at night they had honest, sometimes tearful, sometimes angry conversations about race. “I remember in South Carolina saying brother, if I had to fight a man every time something racist happened? I’d be fighting every day, brother,” Reynolds says. “I don’t have time or energy. Brendan has the time and the energy to fight every single person.” He laughs.
Months later, in the wake of protests about the murders of Black men and boys by police, Kiely came to Reynolds with the idea for a book. “While we were having these conversations by being vulnerable, we were becoming better friends,” Kiely says. “And that all had to happen before we could write All American Boys, because we couldn’t sit down with some white dude’s intellectual plan to write a book about Black Lives Matter. That would be a complete failure.”
Their relationship was one of the most important parts of the writing process, and they insist there was never any tension between them—they almost wish there were; it would be a better story. Instead, they had to trust each other implicitly, and vowed to abandon the project if it could ruin the friendship.
For Reynolds, one other caveat of the book was that Rashad live, telling a common but often silent story. “I grew up with a bunch of people who experienced police brutality and did not die,” Reynolds said. “And it’s as if it never happened. And so when we talk about systemic racism and we talk about the sort of social psyche around police violence, what we’re truly talking about is the emotional trauma of millions of people who have bumped up against this, who live with it in their bodies. What about them?”
Reynolds is quick to clarify that this is a deeply personal feeling, not a criticism of books in which Black teens are killed, such as The Hate U Give or Dear Martin. “Every single story is a story that deserves to exist and needs to be a part of the pot so we get a full view of what exactly is happening,” he says.
Part of the full view in All American Boys is the nuanced portrayal of the cop, which Kiely says, “negate[s] the myth of the bad apple.” “I think it’s important for us to portray that, for white folks like me, many of our heroes, many of our family members, many of our basketball coaches, many of our teachers, many of our figureheads that we’ve looked up to… who are white have participated in a system that perpetuates violence against Black people and brown people and Indigenous people all the time,” Kiely says. “So it isn’t about villains, it’s about our collective accountability and culpability in that abuse.”
As they toured, they spoke to young people in schools, libraries, book festivals, and juvenile detention centers. In places with a majority Black population, they were welcomed with open arms. “There was an immediate reception from kids who were like, yes that’s real, yes that makes sense… you’re in the voice of my life and you’re telling the stories of our lives,” Kiely says.
“But it wasn’t that easy when it came to just getting the higher-ups and the gatekeepers on board with letting a book about police brutality into schools that weren’t Black,” Reynolds adds.
They also went to areas that had recently experienced police brutality incidents, like near Ferguson, MO. They went to places that weren’t welcoming. Places that we now refer to as Trump country. In places like that, people believed that the book was a form of anti-cop hate speech. Parents called school, kids opted out of presentations. Librarians had to fight to have the authors come. Sometimes, they were disinvited entirely. In one town, they spoke on the radio in the morning and by the time they arrived at the school a few hours later, parents had demanded the presentation be canceled. It wasn’t.As white gatekeepers feared that a work of young adult fiction would challenge their kids, Black communities fear the daily violence that appears in the book.
“The people who say you can’t talk about this book with our community because it’s too dangerous or radical or incendiary are people who perpetuate the very erasure of the kids who were saying, this is my reality,” Kiely says. “I think that it’s really important to reiterate that this kind of fear from particularly white people but figures of authority across the country about talking about reality is part of the perpetuation of oppressing the very folks whose survival we’re trying to talk about in the book.”
Danger. It’s another duality. As white gatekeepers feared that a work of young adult fiction would challenge their kids, Black communities fear the daily violence that appears in the book.
In many schools, Reynolds and Kiely had to engage with police directly—officers who had read the book and ones who hadn’t, cops who hated them and ones who were proud of them. Just as they are accountable to each other, they believe in accountability in police forces, for good cops to report bad cops.
“But—or and rather, as Brendan has taught me over the years—and having traveled this country and having seen the nooks and the crannies and the corners, quitting a job isn’t always so easy. Being able to say, I can’t do this job because of my racist coworkers who are doing terrible things, I’m going to quit this job, isn’t always as easy as us city folk like to believe,” Reynolds says. In rural Louisiana or Maryland, for example, these may be the highest paying jobs.
“It doesn’t mean that we should excuse it, but I’m saying that Brendan and I were fortunate to see a lot of the country with our own eyes and recognize some of the class issues at play in the midst of all of the other things,” he says.
Like the friendship-forging conversations they had with each other, they had emotional discussions about race and policing with the officers themselves, hugging it out afterward. Sometimes, Kiely would go into the bathroom and cry.
“Those are important moments because those are people who have the courage to grapple with the complexity that Jason’s talking about,” he says. “All the personal complexity, but also to understand their personal context in the macro. And if young kids are doing that all the time, all over this country, as complicated as it is, I think it’s worth our challenging the adults in these communities to grapple with these complexities too.”
With the benefit of these five years of hindsight, which encompassed the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, if they had it to write over, Kiely and Reynolds would change one major thing about the book: increased page time for female characters. “It is called All American Boys, but there’s some problem with that,” Kiely says. “Jason and I have talked about this a thousand times. We would definitely do a better job including a much more prominent role for the young women in the book.”
Five years ago, it was courageous to publish this book within an extremely white publishing industry. As the business diversifies at a glacial pace from the bottom up, in many ways it still is.
“From a very basic human level, if a white man is at the top writing checks for the things that he believes in, the things that he believes make money or the things that he could invest in safely for himself—self-interest is always important to discuss—why wouldn’t he dump money into white men?” Reynolds says. “Is it racist? Of course it’s racist! But the racism of it has more to do with the fact that he can’t acknowledge the bias and won’t do anything to put people next to him who have their own taste to diversify that industry and that money.”
There is hope: in the weeks after this interview, two Black women were named as publishers at major houses.
In 2015, Kiely says, there was a sense of urgency to write a book about what was going on in the country. Though he’s written other novels, All American Boys is still the focus of most of his presentations. “It feels kind of weird I think to feel like we’re still in the moment in many ways that we were in six years ago when we sat down to write the book,” he says.
“It would be dope if, like, for the ten-year anniversary the book goes out of print,” Reynolds says. “Like it’s just not necessary anymore. It’s like historical fiction, you know. That would be awesome.”
“If it could go in a museum,” Kiely says.
“I wish it didn’t have to exist, but I do think about Toni Morrison and I think about James Baldwin and I think about all the writers who understood that you have an obligation to some extent to document the time and to make art that’s going to challenge the society and challenge the quo. To really push people to think about the world in a way maybe they haven’t, or to push people to push back against themselves and their own sort of comforts that they’ve settled into, that happen to also be poisoning the people around them,” Reynolds says. “And if we did that, even if only for a single generation, shit man, I don’t know. You know what I mean? What else is there?”