Race and Police Brutality in YA Literature: A Review

HateUGiveNothing kicks off a book like a well-made movie of the book.  But Angie Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give – title derived from a Tupac lyric – also places a harsh light on reality in many young adult lives.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer.

What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.  But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Thomas is not the only YA author to use police brutality as a theme.  Jason Reynolds, who has been called the new Walter Dean Myers, objects, “This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time.”

All AmericanHis All American Boys, written with Brendan Kiely, features an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter.  A classmate, who is both white and a close neighbor of the officer, witnesses the incident. Will he tell what really happened?

Alter, Alexandra. “New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality.” New York Times, 19 March 2017, p. A1.

Police violence against unarmed African-Americans has also been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All.

Between the WorldWhat is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder.

LoweryThey Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

A deeply reported book that brings alive the quest for justice in the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, offering both unparalleled insight into the reality of police violence in America and an intimate, moving portrait of those working to end it.

Conducting hundreds of interviews during the course of over one year reporting on the ground, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland; and then back to Ferguson to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.

–Written by Mary Spevacek, Reference Librarian
*All cover art courtesy of Amazon.com
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