Thursday, March 5, 2015

What did the Book Club think about The Boy in the Black Suit?

Last year we hosted The Gentleman’s Tour, a group of young adult authors from Simon and Schuster. We had a great time with all of them, Brendan Kiely, author of The Gospel of Winter, John Corrie Whaley, author of Noggin, and Jason Reynolds, author of When I Was the Greatest. We had a great school event for all of them, and a fine evening at the bookstore where we had kids carpooling in groups from pretty far away. What a great evening we had.

So when we saw that Jason Reynolds’ second novel was coming out the next year, we made a proposal for another day of schools. The folks at Simon (actually the Atheneum imprint) agreed and we quickly booked three schools up, plus our first public event at East Library, all on Monday, April 13, 6:30 pm. I hope you have marked your calendars.

But I wanted to do more. I have been continually trying to send our in-store lit group off in new directions, and I realized that while we do read diverse voices, we’d yet to read a young-adult novel. I thought it would be an interesting experiment.

The Boy in the Black Suit is about Matt Miller, a senior in high school who is set up to do a work-study job with a local bank. The only problem is that Matt’s mom is dying, and during this process, the job is filled by another kid. So now she’s passed away, and he’s completely stuck. He just can’t seem to grieve the right way, his friends don’t know how to help, and his father has turned to the bottle, which is a way of saying he’s having trouble as well.

He applies for a job at a local fast food place, and while he likes the cute cashier, he’s turned off by an obnoxious customer and at least one other gross thing that happens. But one of the other customers is the local funeral director, who knows the family and offers him a job there. After thinking about it, he’s in, as long as he doesn’t have to touch the dead bodies. And once here’s there, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to the services, and starts attending them. And that’s the set up.

Very few of my attendees had read a true YA novel before, though coincidentally, one of our attendees had just read The Fault in Our Stars for her other book club. The response from the group was pretty polarized. A few of the attendees loved the book, particularly a retiree who had worked in social services and felt that this book was a must read for anyone dealing with kids. Some folks disliked it for various reasons and other people fell in the middle.

I had come into the story very enthusiastic. I thought the story was quite nuanced, and the characters were quite strong. Matt was so compelling to me (let's be honest, I was completely taken by him!), particularly in his attempt to understand his grief. Sure there was an idealization of some of the characters, particularly the women. But we all idealize someone after they passed, so come on, you have to give him a break on his Mom. And as for his love interest, Love, yes, she does seem a little too good to be true, a teenager running a homeless shelter? I felt she would have worked better as a friend than love interest, but I think that’s a function of YA. Had there not been a love interest, the book wouldn’t have seemed complete. There’s also some implausibility in some of the coincidences of the story, but as I always say, it’s a novel and a certain amount of coincidence is necessary to drive a good plot forward. And one coincidence in The Boy in the Black Suit, which I will not mention here, is important for Matt, to strengthen his connection to Love and come to terms with his own grief.

One thing that shone through strongly was how important the community was in Matt’s life. You just could see that without other folks in the neighborhood coming to his rescue, his life might have gone south. It wasn’t just getting a job, but also the numerous times the community came together to help other people out, like when his dad had an accident. And you had to figure that Matt was absorbing these lessons, and would grow to be a better person for it.

Having talked to other writers about the rules of the YA genre, I asked folks how the book might have been different if it was written outside the genre. For one thing, we could have had more voices. We really only get a hint of what Mr. Ray’s life was like as a basketball player, what his motivations are for taking in Matt, and what he got out of life in a funeral home. We began to wonder whether young adult work is sometimes shaped by editors, when developing authors want to go out of the bounds of what is acceptable in the YA genre. That said, I’ve certainly read books where I thought the book had an inappropriate age level recommendation. Just this school year alone, we once decided to target 4th grade and up on a book that the publisher thought was appropriate for 3rd, and another time, we turned down a book for middle school, because we really thought the book was geared more for high school, and maybe not even 9th grade. But some of these rules, like never telling the story from the adult’s perspective, has nothing to do with content or language. It’s just a perception of what a kid would want. But then again, I just had an 11-year-old tell me he finished All the Light We Cannot See and loved it, so what do we all know?

One thing came to mind to me while I was reading this book was that despite the preponderance of texting in the story, many of the other details felt old school. Was this Bed Stuy right now, or was this memories of Reynolds’ youth, maybe more from the 1990s? Several other attendees wondered this as well, and I’m interested to see what the author says when he visits. My guess is that a YA editor would not want a book set in the 1990s, as it’s neither historical nor contemporary, but adult writers love setting books in the recent past, partly so they can conform to their own memories, and partly because they don’t have to deal with technological advances that have made havoc of classic plot devices.

So as I said, the group was mixed on The Boy in the Black Suit, but I was particularly surprised when one attendee said she didn’t think kids would like it. Not enough action, and so forth. This was partly because I already knew that several of the kids who are getting a visit from Reynolds in April did read it and really liked it. I think what my attendees might have been missing is that this might be a quiet story, but for a lot of kids, it’s a story they haven’t heard before, mostly because that kid is like them. And while we can all learn a lot from all sorts of stories, there’s something eye opening about being a Black kid and identifying with another Black kid having some life issues. And this kid is neither idealized perfection (the way many White writers with big hearts write their Black characters), nor the street tough that is the default characterization for popular culture, particularly in hip hop music. He’s just a kid, and if you haven’t come across that before, it’s incredibly special. Here's Alaya Dawn Johnson's take on NPR.

And that’s the thing that struck home for me. This is an African American story, but it’s not a story about “race” and that’s the kind of book that can open the eyes of all sorts of kids. Matt learns that there are all kinds of ways to live in the world, all different kinds of ways to be African American. Black kids get a story they can identify with, and other kids see stereotypes broken.

To me, that’s pretty great! Hope you agree and you’ll join us at East Library on Monday, April 13, 6:30 pm. And did I mention that Reynolds was just awarded the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award from the American Library Association for his first novel, When I Was the Greatest?

Up next, we discuss (with the help of Boswellian Carly) Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill, on Monday, April 6, 7 pm.

And then on Monday, May 4, 7 pm, we’ll discuss Redeployment, the National-Book-Award-winning stories from Phil Klay. The book club is free and open to the public.

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