This debut, YA novel by Nic Stone just came out last year, so I hurried to read it. One of my friends called it one of the best YA books of the year, and I was like, “Sorry, but that title has already gone to The Hate U Give.” But then I read Dear Martin and … it’s a tight race, you guys. Like, really, really tight.
Both books deal with the Black Lives Matter movement. Both have black main characters that are witness to their best friends getting gunned down by cops, then have to testify and deal with the aftermath. Both are dating (or want to date) white people and they have mixed feelings about that. Both have white friends, some of whom are “woke,” others not so much.
The main character in Dear Martin is a seventeen-year-old boy named Justyce who’s from a not-great part of town, but is currently going to a fancy prep school where most of his classmates are white. His best friend is another black guy named Emmanuel (Manny), but Manny likes to hang out with a bunch of clueless white guys who casually say “n—–” around him and insist racism is a thing of the past.
Justyce is also not very aware of racial issues at the start of the book, although he knows his mom would blow a gasket if he dated a white girl. But the book begins with him getting arrested for trying to help out his light-skinned ex-girlfriend (Melo) in the middle of the night. She’s drunk out of her mind and a mutual friend calls Justyce for help. He finds Melo having a hard time standing, much less getting her key in her car door. Justyce picks her up, puts her in the back seat of her car, and is immediately handcuffed by a police officer who assumes Melo is white and Justyce is mugging her. Melo is too drunk and scared to correct the cop, but apparently it wouldn’t have mattered if she had said anything since her parents soon arrive and try to straighten everything out, but the cop doesn’t want to hear what they have to say. Finally a friend’s father who’s an attorney is reached and he manages to talk the cops into letting Justyce go.
Needless to say, Justyce is pretty shaken up by the whole thing. He decides to deal with it by writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and conducting an experiment in which he’ll try to be more like MLK. When he finds himself in tough situations, he asks himself, “What would Martin do?”
It doesn’t go great. Manny’s asshole friends continue to be clueless assholes, provoking Justyce and Manny into some ill-advised behavior that’s pretty typical of teenaged boys, but because they’re black and have some loose ties to local gang members, it looks really bad. And of course the media brings it all out to drag Justyce and Manny through the mud after both boys are shot, killing Manny and hospitalizing Justyce.
That’s when Justyce stops writing his letters to Martin. He doesn’t see the point of doing the right thing if white people are only ever going to see him as a thug.
Fortunately, Justyce has a black professor at his mostly-white prep school who has his head on right and has managed to earn the respect of his students. So when Justyce is struggling with everything that’s happened and his whole “why bother?” routine, his professor (whom he calls Doc) manages to talk some sense into him.
Which is not to say that Doc is telling Justyce things will get better. He just points out that, no matter how good or bad things get, Justyce has to be able to live with himself. He doesn’t judge and he doesn’t tell Justyce what to do. He merely points out that Justyce always has a choice and he has to live with those choices.
It’s a great book that is very well written and deals with some very real, very heavy issues without trying to sugarcoat anything. I highly recommend it to everyone.
What did you guys read this week. Any other best books of the year?