When Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely sat down for a beer last year, tackling one of our nation’s most deeply entrenched problems was not at the top of their agenda. The two critically acclaimed young adult writers had met earlier that year, while promoting their first books, When I Was the Greatest and The Gospel of Winter, respectively (both published by Simon & Schuster). While on tour, they’d found that they had much in common – a shared hometown of New York City, and similar philosophies, as writers and as teachers. Now that they were each back to life as usual, they’d put a date on the calendar to catch up.
But the news, those days, was punctuated by “one police brutality incident after another,” says Kiely. They’d spoken at length, while on tour, about diversity and race-related issues in YA literature. But that evening in SoHo, with the death of Trayvon Martin – and many others – weighing heavily on their minds, the tone of the conversation was different.
“I remember being really, really upset,” says Reynolds.
“I wanted to respond in some way – to step into a conversation about racism, and to write about it head-on,” says Kiely. “It seemed that the best way to do that was to think about how to partner.”
In the weeks that followed, the two began working, in secret, on All-American Boys: the story of two friends, one black and one white. They settled on some of the details by email: the teen friends’ names (Rashad and Quinn), their school, their hobbies, and personalities. The plot, they decided, would center on one shocking, violent incident: Mistaken for a shoplifter in a convenience store, Rashad is assaulted by a police officer who is a father figure to Quinn. In chapters that alternate in points of view, the two friends – and the school, families, and community that surround them – try to make sense of the incident.
As sadly familiar as that story sounds, the two authors, who traded chapters by email, insist that the plot is based neither on headlines nor personal experience.
“We wanted to do justice to the real-life issues in front of everyone’s face on the news, but we had to invent something all its own,” says Kiely, who wrote from Quinn’s perspective. “It’s not too hard to invent the story of what it’s like to feel like you’re persecuted by the police – especially if you’re a young black man. It’s also not hard to construct a person who is a white boy trying to be an ally and not a bystander who might be inflicting more damage.”
Reynolds, who wrote from the perspective of Rashad, says that the issue is personal: “I was eight years old when I got the talk about what to do if a police officer stops me. I was 15 when I was face-down on the curb for the first time.” But in a piece of fiction, he says, he can separate out the feelings of anger and frustration and look at the big picture. “When writing, I’m forced to be patient and to draw out all of the nuances. It’s not as simple as black and white, about hate. It’s about fear – about so many things that we don’t think about.”
The project enabled Kiely to think deeply about how he handles conversations about race. “They can be more difficult for white people than for other people,” he says. “Spending time with a character who had to deal with it was good for me as a writer.”
So too was the process of collaboration, Kiely adds. “I kept finding solutions to the problems I was writing in Jason’s writing. My character doesn’t interact with Rashad on a day-to-day basis, but as a writer, I was interacting with Jason’s writing on a day-to-day basis. And that was inspiring.”
As the authors began weaving together their sections, some powerful and unexpected connections emerged. “Rashad is obsessed with Aaron Douglas, a Harlem Renaissance painter,” says Reynolds. “I used that as a motif to talk about invisibility, with no idea that Brendan had worked Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man into the book.”
Six months later, the book was complete; only then did Kiely and Reynolds clue in their agents, Rob Weisbach of Rob Weisbach Creative Management and Elena Giovinazzo of Pippin Properties, respectively. “Rob and I received the manuscript from Brendan and Jason, read it immediately and agreed we had something particularly special on our hands,” says Giovinazzo. The two agents decided to share the manuscript exclusively with Reynolds’s editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, who has her own imprint at Simon & Schuster. “It’s no surprise to me that these two guys, who share a gift for understanding the way kids think and speak, have created a narrative that got such a fast, passionate response,” Weisbach says.
Indeed, All-American Boys, which Simon & Schuster will publish under its Caitlyn Dlouhy Books imprint on September 29, is already generating buzz – and inspiring dialogue. Reynolds, who teaches in a low-residency MFA program at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass., read the first chapter for students, faculty, and community members there. He saw a 12-year-old girl in the audience who was crying. “She went to dinner with her mother and had so many questions,” he says. “ ‘Does that happen? Is it true? What can we do about it?’ ”
One goal for the novel is to generate such conversations, says Kiely, who hopes it can build on the work of social justice organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. “They’ve been shouting and singing a strong chorus for many years,” he says. “I feel grateful that we’ve created something that can hopefully be a part of that.”
But what will distinguish it from other socially conscious writing projects is its ability to grab readers. “This book is sharp,” says Reynolds. “The characters are interesting and they’re likeable. I’d love for young people to see it as a cool thing to have and discuss – that you’re lame if you don’t want to have the hard talk.”
After all, he says: “It’s the young people who are dead in the street. It’s going to be the young people who can figure out how to turn this corner.”
All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy, $17.99 Sept. 29 ISBN 978-1-4814-6333-1