In 2014, police officers choked Eric Gardner to death in New York City, shot and killed John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, and shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Saddened and angered by the tragic deaths, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely used their most potent weapon, storytelling, to write All American Boys about two young men caught in a police brutality incident. Before the authors began writing, they established a three-point policy to set the tone for the work. One: If the friendship fails, the book will fail. Two: If the book is wildly successful, they will donate money to organizations aligned with their theme. Three: If a publishing company does not publish it, they will publish it themselves on the Internet. (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books published it in September 2015.) Here the writers reflect on their process and partnership.
There are many books out there with male lead characters where the book is action, action, action. “I do something” and “I conquer something” and “I beat something.” I think it’s really important to write books that are about boys where the entire narrative arc is about emotion, because boys have emotional landscapes, too, and often they aren’t taught to think about that.
Other than the writing, there was another level of process that had mostly to do with who wasn’t doing the writing. I’m not writing half of this book, and I have to trust that whatever this person is writing, he’s doing it to the best of his abilities, and he’s doing it with the intention that we set out.
Kids grapple with the immediacies of their life because they aren’t out there in the world in the same way as adults. Their world is pretty close. So writing in first person makes sense because that’s the way kids speak and relate.
You can’t overuse it because then it becomes clownish, but it’s always helpful to use some. It colors the work a bit. It adds some edge and some oomph.
I try to throw in as much broken, fragmented dialogue as possible. As you’re drafting, maybe you notice that the word “like” has popped up too many times on one page, and you begin to cut, but at first, be as broken and real as possible.
My process is to use characters as host bodies. If there’s an issue that we’re trying to get at, then let me develop a character who has that issue, and he or she will be the host and walk the reader through a period of time, trusting that whatever the host is carrying will show itself without having to be raining down from the hand of God.
A little bit of censorship, a little bit of oppressive control by adults is a good thing because that can inspire kids to care and push back a little bit. A little bit of rebellion is a good thing, especially if they’re channeling it for things like this where it really matters.
Megan Kaplon is a contributing editor to The Writer.