By: Nic Stone
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: October 17th 2017
Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.
Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.
This book came out a while ago–and although I noted it at the time, it took me forever to actually get around to reading it. Snagging a signed copy at my local indie helped me to actually feel motivated to read it, but I still hesitated because of the subject matter. But I thought this would be an important read, and an important review, and so the plan is to dedicate June to reading and reviewing more diverse books (with the help of my guest reviewer Brittany).
For all that I was dragging my feet on this book, I fell into it surprisingly quickly–one chapter in and I was hooked, and I didn’t stop reading until it was done. It’s a small book, surprisingly light, with lots of ‘interludes’ in the form of chat messages and news reports, and half-written in the form of Justyce’s letters to MLK. But for all of that it was a very deep book, and I was definitely still thinking about the book hours after I finished it. As Goodreads indicates, this is a book about police brutality–although honestly, the incident mentioned in the synopsis happens ¾ of the way through the book. It’s not the main focus, but instead the climax of a discussion about race that happens the entire way through.
From page one, Justyce is someone I can absolutely root for–a black kid from a rough part of Atlanta, who’s a straight-A student at an exclusive prep school. But from page one, he’s dealt a rough hand: handcuffed for trying to keep his (biracial and white-passing) ex girlfriend from driving drunk. And after that it’s hard for him not to see the way that his skin color means he’s automatically dealt a bad hand. The issues he’s dealing with take front and center in hindsight, but Justyce’s quiet characterization is what places them there. And Nic Stone does his characterization masterfully, quietly and with a sense of using as few words as possible. One scene that dazzled me was when Justyce mentions that his father was an abusive drunk, in passing as context for a greater part of the conversation. But what resonated was how in two sentences this book conveyed Justyce’s understanding that his father was bad, someone who did harm to him and his mother, while also acknowledging that his actions were directly tied to his time in the army and subsequent PTSD. There’s a lot of information conveyed here, not least Justyce’s empathy and ability to see both sides of an issue, that is condensed into a small, offhand paragraph within a larger scene focusing on something else entirely. It was absolutely dazzling.
And the cast of characters around Justyce was amazing. Manny I especially liked–he definitely had flaws, but they were believable flaws, and I loved how he would nudge Justyce to open up and confide in him about his issues. ‘Doc’ is another great character, a teacher of color who leads the debate team and acts as a mentor for both Justyce and Manny. Both of them encourage Justyce’s questioning and help lead him to a more nuanced understanding of race and race relations. And I also loved SJ, Justyce’s debate partner and crush–she was so stridently willing to do the right thing, to ask the hard questions, and to delve into and argue about topics such as racial profiling. And although Jared mostly served as an example of a privileged, entitled, stubbornly I’m-not-racist-I-just-don’t… kind of guy, he managed some amount of redemption towards the end. It was more interesting to see Justyce’s few interactions with the people in his old neighborhood and his brushes with the Black Jihad–the ways in which he mostly tried to avoid them, but kept getting tarred with the same brush. And the relationship with his mother was also complex. And the ways that his connections were used against him in the media horrible.
But one thing I also thought the book did well was, even in highlighting some facets of the big question of race, always showing shades of grey. His mother is unable to reconcile with Justyce dating a white girl. Jared is a horrible person until he realizes the extent to which his racism affected his best friend, and then takes steps to change it. The hearing for Manny’s death results in something that can’t quite be called justice, but has a note of finality to it. There’s no sense that there’s one way forward at the end, merely an exploration of different conversations going on about race, profiling, police brutality and what justice looks like in a world of systemic racism. But Dear Martin is a deep, thoughtful look at all of this that makes no judgment and sees no winners.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.