Friday, November 3, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Readers have been asking questions like "Should I read Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, or Dear Martin by Nic Stone?" And the answer is yes. There is no need to choose between the two. Just go for both and end up twice as blessed.

The Situation: Justyce McAllister is an A+ student, captain of the debate team at Braselton Prep, and pretty much set to attend Yale next fall. But all future plans take second place in his mind once he is wrongfully arrested for a crime that never even happened. Although Justyce is released, he cannot get over the incident and the way he was treated, all because he is a young black man who was trying to help out a friend, and a cop got the wrong idea. It does not help that some of his classmates believe that racial equality has been achieved in America, and that black people are too sensitive. It also does not help that Justyce's best friend, Manny, is never willing to stand up to his white friends when it comes to their wrong attitudes about race. Justyce decides to write letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose teachings he studied in school. If there is anyone who would understand what he is going through, it would be the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Problem: If Justyce has his ignorant classmates on one side of him - always making inappropriate jokes, comments, and assertions - he also has the people from his old neighborhood, calling him "smarty-pants" and saying that he will return to the hood once he realizes the white people he goes to school with will never accept him. Justyce feels pressed in on all sides, but there is one saving grace. His debate partner Sarah-Jane is never shy about speaking her mind and standing up for Justyce. He would love nothing more than to date her, but his mother would never approve of him being with a white girl. There is also Manny, who may have grown up with more privilege than Justyce, but is still a young black man living in Atlanta, and attending a prep school. Unfortunately, this is all an off-duty cop sees when the two of them are driving around together. Justyce began writing to Dr. King in an attempt to be more like him, but now he wonders what good it will actually do, and will it be enough to save him.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in modern day Atlanta. Justyce is in his senior year of high school when the book begins, and it ends shortly after he goes off to college. In that year he will have many of the usual teenage experiences that can be found in most movies, books, or TV shows. But his experiences take darker turns simply because he is a young black man. Most of the book is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, but in between some chapters are Justyce's letters to Dr. King. Also, some of the storytelling in certain chapters reads more like a play. When there is heavy dialogue, or a rapid exchange between characters (such as a heated discussion in Justyce's Societal Evolution class, or a cross-examination by a defense attorney), Stone does away with the quotation marks and the need to you use "says" or "explains" or "asks," etc. The effect is a definite sense of the tension and discomfort that these types of conversations can create. The primary theme is of course race, and more specifically how young black men are treated in this country. What Justyce tries to do is to go back to the teachings of Dr. King and see how they can be applied today.

My Verdict: If you are all about comfort, and keeping things light, and not having difficult conversations that allow for confronting hard truths or the way you think, then this book is not going to be for you. But it should be. Really, it is for everyone, but many will intentionally avoid it because of what is written on the book jacket. Stone pulls no punches and gets to the heart of the subject right away. Once Justyce is wrongfully arrested, the book does not let up. The challenges that the main character faces are many, and they do not all come from the police. In fact, most of them don't, as his main antagonist sits with him in his classroom. The amount of judgment, and criticism, and general negativity he has to endure seems relentless, and to him it certainly feels that way too. But in this, the point certainly makes it across to the reader that this is an issue that needs to be faced, and talked about, and dealt with, and books like this can certainly play an important role in that discussion.  

Favorite Moment: When Jared, one of Justyce's classmates, unwittingly exposes to the entire class, and possibly himself, just how deep his own prejudices go...even though everyone pretty much already knew.

Favorite Character: Manny is not perfect, but he is the kind of friend Justyce needs. He is willing to call his friend out on his nonsense (especially when it comes to a certain ex-girlfriend), and ends up coming to terms with his own issues.

Recommended Reading: Of course I am going to say The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I also recommend Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

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