Police brutality in children’s fiction

I found a knife in my pocket yesterday morning. My first thought was relief: I use it for gardening, but I’d lost track of it, and I had a Sunday of planting-out and tying-up planned. My second thought was, what if I weren’t a privileged white lady? If somehow I were stopped by a nervous police officer who was predisposed to see me as trouble, I wouldn’t be carrying my gardening knife, I’d be armed.

This is where my head’s been at, after a fortnight of some of the most disturbing reading I’ve ever done in children’s books.

It started with Angie Thomas’s THE HATE YOU GIVE, about a 16-year-old girl who’s the only witness to the shooting of her best friend by a police officer. Thomas also paints a really beautiful picture of a black American family: resilient and full of love. There’s a reason this book is electrifying the children’s literature world. Read it.

How I Got Over, a stage adaptation of ALL AMERICAN BOYS: authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely pictured at right

Then, by a fluke, I managed to be in New York to catch a youth theater adaptation of Jason Reynolds’s and Brendan Kiely’s ALL AMERICAN BOYS, about two boys whose lives are transformed when one is brutalized by the other’s friend, a police officer. The show was followed by a frank discussion about racism in America. Originally published in 2015, the book occupies a unique place in this dialogue, co-written by one black and one white author; it, along with the stage adaptation, is doing some fascinating work in the US in helping advance the discussion (including with police) around these issues.

Finally was the launch in Scotland this week of Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY prequel, THE PEARL THIEF, which is more than just a cleverly plotted and gorgeously written YA historical mystery. It also draws a shocking portrait of systemic racism against travellers in this part of the world. Elizabeth launched her book with a Q&A alongside Jess Smith, a traveller author from Scotland who said that until THE PEARL THIEF, she’d never once seen a positive portrayal of her community in fiction.

Jess Smith (l), author of of THE WAY OF THE WANDERERS: THE STORY OF TRAVELLERS IN SCOTLAND, with THE PEARL THIEF author Elizabeth Wein

“Children aren’t born racist,” Jess said to me at the book signing afterwards, where I picked up her memoir, THE WAYS OF THE WANDERERS. She’d like to see schools teach students about traveller history and culture as part of Scottish history, and so would I. The adults of tomorrow are more likely to respect a heritage they learn about properly, than one that’s whispered about in the comments and slurs that circulate about travellers (untrustworthy…prone to criminality…up to no good).

Sound familiar?

America at reckoning

And all this comes against a backdrop of a resurgence in bigotry, racism and (worst of all) a normalisation of both those things among far right political groups in just about every country, my own homeland especially.

I was in New York because of my annual Girls’ Week with my mother and sister, and I went this time with trepidation, due to the bigot in the White House and the cast of bigots around him. I half-feared that Newark International Airport would be bedecked with 20-foot flags showing Chairman Mao-like pictures of the commander-in-chief, but fortunately there was no such thing. Rather I found a constant news cycle of derision about the man. Still, he and his policies continue to attack the health and freedom of Americans, and constant pressure must be maintained on elected officials.

The current administration and its existence has been a reckoning for America. The Q&A at the ALL AMERICAN BOYS adaptation, which was called “How I Got Over,” addressed this. As Jason Reynolds commented, liberal white America realized something after the election that black America has known for 250 years, namely, that life’s not fair and good doesn’t necessarily prevail. It’s been decades, for instance, since Malcom X first demanded an end to police brutality, but it’s only Facebook Live and social media that have made witnesses of us all, personalizing police brutality and giving everyone a taste of the black American experience, like it or not.

So, yes: a reckoning. I’ve barely been able to think about what happened on November 9 and who now holds the reins of power. But I also feel ashamed, because I feel I’m only now beginning to do something that’s hugely important, thanks to the particular clarity and empathy that only fiction can deliver. I’m letting myself acknowledge how the mainstream systems that I trust and that have nurtured me have done the opposite to minority communities.

I love my family, but growing up in Irish America and then living for years in Ireland, did I ever hear one single decent thing said about travellers? I did not. Have I ever taken the time or trouble to try understand what it’d feel like to grow up with perception stacked against me? I have not. Have I gazed at the beautiful faces of my children, now approaching the independence of adolescence, and worried they’ll be profiled, harassed, or worse by authorities simply because of how they look?

I have not. But now I’m imagining it, vividly, thanks to Angie, Jason, Brendan and Elizabeth.

Who’s visible

“I am an invisible man.” Ralph Ellison’s words from his book of the same name recur frequently in ALL AMERICAN BOYS, and they have clanged in my brain for the last two weeks. Who do I see when I look at people whose backgrounds differ radically from my own?

Who do you see?

And, further – what do you say when you hear a joke, a slur, a stereotype?

If you’re a member of the mainstream in your community, you have a responsibility to call it out and say it loud. If you’re told you’re being politically correct or witch hunting, say it LOUDER. If privilege is something you were born with, you have an active responsibility to use it.

In fact ALL AMERICAN BOYS was written, as Jason Reynolds mentioned during the Q&A, because his co-author Brendan Kiely couldn’t find a book about white privilege. Brendan grew up in a Massachusetts community like my own – just a half-hour away from mine, in fact: exclusively white. And, of course, the books draws on Jason’s experience, and what he saw growing up in Washington, D.C.: “I grew up,” he said, “where police brutality on a Tuesday was just a Tuesday.”

During the Q&A, Jason and Brendan talked about the white person’s role in the conversation about racism in America, about the need to go back to the communities where the blinders are on and help deliver a necessarily uncomfortable message: if you’re part of the mainstream, you’re playing a role in the systems that have brutalized people of color for centuries.
“Racism doesn’t end,” Jason said, “until white people talk to white people about racism.”

He also spoke about the need to choose, every single day, to be antiracist, and I think that’s what stayed with me most. What choices am I making today? What positive action am I taking to change minds, including my own?

Good cop, bad cop

I should add that, if you work in the police or have friends who do, all the books I mention above also talk about good cops with good hearts and stress that by no means are all cops bad. But police power, and the physical force that officers may use, is especially terrifying — and frequently tragic when paired with the predisposition to prejudge minorities, a predisposition that exists in every structure, including law enforcement, that society rests on.

Have you read CODE NAME VERITY, by the way? Or know anything about World War II? When the police are Nazis, every non-Nazi is a minority, as you will recall.

In fact there’s a particularly ominous scene in THE PEARL THIEF, when a constable who patrols the local river and has a reputation for violence delivers a beating to a traveller boy. The boy’s friends, including Julie of CODE NAME VERITY fame, can do nothing to stop it:

“The river watcher cracked two more fearsome blows over the back of Euan’s shoulders with his cromach, and when Euan slumped forward, Anderson gave him a kick in the ribs for good measure.

‘Remember it, wee man. I’ll arrest you and I’ll knock your teeth in if I get another call from the librarian about you.’

Sergeant Angus Henderson straightened up, resurrected his bicycle and pointed it back in the direction of Brig O’Fearn village.

Ellen let go of me quickly.

I couldn’t believe how fast this had happened, and how disorganised we’d been – how helpless in the face of authority and violence.”

The state of the world demands not just empathy, but action. Reading is an action. Putting mind-expanding books into the hands of the kids in your life is an action. Getting political is an action. What action are you taking today? And, importantly for my own needs, what other books can you recommend to me that foment understanding and respect?


Learn more about the books mentioned above:

ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Simon & Schuster – ebook cover shown here). See a replay of the live stream of the theatre performance here from Off the Page

THE HATE YOU GIVE by Angie Thomas (Walker UK)

THE PEARL THIEF by Elizabeth Wein (Bloomsbury)

THE WAY OF THE WANDERERS by Jess Smith (Birlinn)

Sheila M. Averbuch is an American writer living and working in Scotland.  

2 Replies to “Police brutality in children’s fiction”

  1. Pleasure meeting you at Elizabeth’s launch of Pearl Thief. Thank you for highlighting the plight of Travellers who only ask to live a peaceful existence in the land of their forefathers.
    I appreciate you mentioning the Way of the Wanderers Sheila, hope we may meet another time and continue our discussion.



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