Book Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

 The cover. I cannot with it even. 

The cover. I cannot with it even. 

Tyler Johnson Was Here
by Jay Coles 
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: no
Published: March 20th, 2018
Rating: What am I doing to change things?

This is again one of my most anticipated reads of 2018. I have been impatient to get my hands on this for more than a year from when the deal was first announced. I preordered this book the moment that it was available for the following reasons:
1. The cover- holy crap
2. I follow the Jay Coles on twitter and like him.
3. It seems like a great follow up to THUG, Dear Martin, What Went Down, and All American Boys
4. Kind of embarrassing but true: This is a book about a brother named Tyler. I have a brother named Tyler. #relate

Yeah. I had expectations.

Tyler Johnson Was Here is an #ownvoices story of Marvin Johnson, a high school student in Alabama, who is dealing with the disappearance of his twin brother Tyler. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again. If you write your character as a geek of any kind or a lover of books and I am INSTANTLY going to relate to them. I can't help it. I am cheap like that. Marvin is not only a geek he also has this touching vulnerability that made me want to find my way into the book so that I could protect him. One thing that I appreciated was Marvin as a "soft" black boy. Black men and boys are so often portrayed as tough that Marvin's sensitivity and determination seems that much more extraordinary.

Twins are like synonyms that know each other through and through, like the moon complements the stars through a life sentence, like a set of infinite entities who’ve seen the world together, experienced its pain and oppression, but I can’t help but feel, in this moment, like my world is ending over and over again, like time moves backward, like the world flashes between black and white and grainy and clear.

Marvin is growing up in a difficult situation. There are gunshots on the first page of the book. It would be understandable if he became tough and numbed to his experiences. The world tells these people over and over that they are criminals and unable to fit into "real" society and at some point, they start to believe it. The character of Johntae in many ways encapsulates this.  There is a moving passage about the difference between a strong man and a good man.

Marvin is clearly a gifted student. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by terrible teachers and administrators at his school. Which, as a teacher, is rage inducing. THAT IS NOT HOW YOU PEDAGOGY!!! Deep breath. Not taking it personally as unfortunately, Marvin is living the same reality as millions of other students.  Over the course of the book, he comes in contact with so many people, most significantly police officers, who don't see him or his brother as a people but as a problem. It illustrated over and over how frightening and dangerous every encounter with the police has the potential to be especially to a young black man. It also made me think about the strength that is must take black boys and girls to swim against those tides of expectations and hopelessness in order to reach their potential.

Just to clarify that I am not black, a man, or living in the United States (and when I lived in the US I lived in a very white suburb and very white rural areas).  This is where I read from.  It also why it took me a few pages in to adjust to the use of AAVE in the narration. The book is in the first person, so it makes complete sense that that is how it is written. It is hardly noticeable (it is phrasing rather than spelling or adding an "accent" to words) aside from more fully grounding Marvin in reality. I own the audiobook as well, and when the book is performed, there is no awkwardness at all which tells me that my noticing in the first pages was due to the narrator in my head rather than the book.

Reading this book did make me realize that as much as I am trying to pay attention to who I am reading, I still read very few books by black men.  I am having a hard time thinking of an author who is a black man that I have read in the last year aside from Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers. I am not displeased with my choices but really?  I read more than 300 books a year, and that is all I have?  I need to make more of an effort because I know I am missing out.

I sometimes feel as if my love for a book can best be measured by how quickly after reading it I send a copy to my mother. If that is true, then it should be telling that I bought her a copy halfway through page three. Anyway, all of this to say, Tyler Johnson was Here is a great follow up to THUG, All American Boys, Dear Martin, What Went Down, and others. It also stands out on its own with a gripping story, three-dimensional characters, and writing that can make you laugh, cry, and most of all feel. I am glad this book is in the world.
 

From Goodreads:

When Marvin Johnson's twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.

The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it's up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.