Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, out now
“Who do you even call when the cops are the ones being the bad guys? Who do you even beg to protect you?”
I am so glad that Black Lives Matter-inspired books continue to be published and break grounds. Tyler Johnson Was Here is a worthy addition not just to the subject but to YA in general for the character of Marvin Johnson.
Marvin and his twin brother Tyler are used to going quiet when the cops bang on their door, but they are still terrified. They’re terrified when they see a cop threaten another black kid down the street. They’re terrified when a cop goes off on them for no reason in the convenience store. When Tyler goes missing after a party, and then a video goes viral of his death by police brutality, Marvin is thrown into chaos and 100% justified frustration.
The thing about Marvin is he cries. He cries A LOT, and he talks about crying. And I think that’s SO important to show in YA lit – a boy crying. In the beginning of the book, Marvin mentions how his father, who is in jail for a wrongly accused crime, told him ‘men don’t cry,’ but he still cries. And then he gets a letter from his dad, which says “Crying can free you, son. Crying can make you see past it, past the pain that hurts your growing heart. The best time to cry is, weird enough, at nighttime — when all the lights are out, and it’s dark, who no one is around to see.” He starts on a good point, but I don’t agree with his ending sentiment. And thankfully those are not words Marvin lives by. It’s obviously tragic that he cries so much because he’s living through hell, but it’s important to show his tears. In public. It’s real.
This book will break your heart. This is from the convenience store scene:
…in this very moment I’m starting to really hate myself, really feel sorry for myself, because I’ve been black for too long, because I’ve been such a menace to society because of this skin, because of the words that come to mind when some people see me.
Another thing to point out is that Tyler was falling into a gang. And, like one of my new fave TV shows On My Block, this book does a solid in pointing out that those who are in gangs are worth caring about, they’re more than the throw-away news story.
Is Tyler being a gang like a pass to not look for him? Just because he fell for the gang life doesn’t mean he’s not saveable, that he’s not worth risking everything for.
I’m glad I read Tyler Johnson Was Here. It made me uncomfortable, and it should’ve. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you have some thinking to do. You’ll want to wrap Marvin and his mom in the hugest hug and wish that you could bring Tyler back for them. From the grand scape of the real issue to the zoomed-in grief, Tyler Johnson Was Here gives a delicate, strong, and important story. Plus, Jay Coles is a new voice in YA that’s worth investing in. I look forward to what else he’ll bring to literature.