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Book Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles


This is a difficult review to write, and I am slightly conflicted. I give Tyler Johnson Was Here four stars, because this book tells an important and sadly all too relevant story. Again and again, we hear the disturbing reports of police brutality, of people being murdered for nothing more than their skin color, or living in a dangerous neighborhood they lack the means to escape. It is shocking and sad and the fact that the plot is based somewhat on the author's real experiences, makes it all the more so. I whole-heatedly wish him success in telling his story and spreading his message of awareness. Something has to change, and though I do not know where to begin, talking about it is hopefully a start.

I grew up in a small town in Germany and was told to trust the police. In German, there is a saying "Die Polizei - dein Freund und Helfer" (the police - your friend and helper) and I lived by this. I was told, if I got lost, or something bad happened, I could turn to the police and they would help me. The notion that I should fear them was utterly foreign to me. The talk Tyler and Marvin's mother has with her boys in this book, about keeping their heads down, about watching out for the police, is one my parents never had to have with my sisters or with me, and I realize how privileged we are for this. Though by now, of course, I know that many people in the US (where I currently live and have for many years), grew up without this thought of the police as a societal safety net. There are many policemen and women, one cannot forget, who are truly good and helpful people, who respect their duty to the community, no matter the color of anyone's skin, or their background. But one cannot ignore that there are also many, whose prejudice has provoked them to cause irreparable damage and rarely face the consequences. To bring attention to this and to encourage a conversation to provoke change and awareness, I think books like Tyler Johnson Was Here are valuable and important, and I hope they are being read and discussed in classrooms.

There is something visceral, almost intrusive about the way the author confronts the reader with the grief of this broken family, that will force readers of all ages to think. Jay Coles strips away barriers, forcing you to see, feel, hear the pain of loss and to comprehend how utterly senseless violence is. Though the writing was, perhaps, not incredibly polished, and I saw some flaws and oversimplifications in his approach, I can see this author having a promising career ahead of him.

Now, I know I said I was conflicted about writing this review, and I want to explain. I am happy to rate this book four stars, because it was thought-provoking and told a truly important story. My little niggle is that I could tell this was a debut, by which I mean, I felt the language was a bit immature, some of the ideas not as developed as they could have been, and the writing not its strongest point. I also found it was a little simplistic to make the majority of white people out to be racists and inherently bad (not just the police, but also the MIT rep, who makes it clear Tyler could only get into the school to fill a diversity quota). There is also a scene in which one of Marvin's friends says he hates white people and when his other friend says that he is being racist, too, Marvin reasons that he is only prejudiced, not racist, which I found to be a problematic and unformed dismissal. Generalizing against groups of people based on skin color is not a step forward - as I thought the author was trying to say, so it seemed counter-productive to offer so little nuance. This area of the book could have been given a more consideration. If we want change, we all have to work together. Coles also makes use of a vast number of metaphors and similes, which felt too much at times, but overuse of these is also a bit of a pet peeve for me, so this could simply be a personal issue. The protagonists may be teenagers, but that is also the case in The Hate U Give and Dear Martin, and I was deeply impressed with both. That being said, the author of Tyler Johnson Was Here is very young, only twenty-two, I believe, and for that, this book is definitely quite a feat. And despite slightly unpolished writing at times, and a few under-developed issues, there were many incredibly moving scenes and the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the protagonist‘s emotions in light of what had happened to his family. I wish Jay Coles success in both his writing and activism, and though this book wasn't perfect, it was a solid way to send a message which I hope is heard and inspires change.