“Dear Justyce” by Nic Stone, 2020, Crown, 267 pages, $18.99
Your birthday card had a Black history postage stamp on it.
As always, it was from Grandma and though it’s kind of corny, you look forward to it ever year: a blue or red envelope outside, a sentimental saying with a few bucks tucked inside. Other than bills, ballots and ads, she’s the only person you know who snail-mails anything, but in “Dear Justyce” by Nic Stone, help can be delivered, too.
The first time Vernell LaQuan Banks ran away, he was 9 years old.
His mother’s new man had been beating her again and though Quan hated leaving his little brother and sister there, he knew it was safer for them if he left the house. And so he went to the park, where he met Justyce McAllister, who was also taking an after-dark break from home.
They kinda knew one another; they lived a block apart in Southwest Atlanta and as it turned out, Justyce’s best friend was Quan’s cousin, but that was it. See, Justyce kept clean, stayed in school, studied hard and went to some fancy white college after graduation, while Quan was arrested the first time at age 13 for stealing a deck of cards from a convenience store. The second time was for possession of a firearm. His third arrest got him labeled as a “career criminal” and three months in youth detention. By then, his mother had stopped caring what happened to him.
And so Quan found his own family. He joined the Black Jihads, led by a man named Martel who ruled his “men.” Suddenly, there was someone who cared where Quan was, and that he had something to eat. The Black Jihad took care of their own.
And in return, Quan took care of them when something happened, quick-quick-quick.
Once, Justyce had visited Quan in prison, and Quan never forgot it. On his darkest days, he thought of Justyce and how their lives were so different. And so he took out a piece of paper and took a chance at friendship.
Argue this: Sometimes, is a choice really a choice? Or is it like a narrow alley with one way out, and somebody’s pushing from behind? That’s one of the hard questions inside “Dear Justyce.”
The entire first part of this book is hard, starting with author Stone’s note to her readers, explaining how this book came to be. It sets you up for what’s about to happen in the story, though it can’t prepare you enough. Not to be a spoiler, but Quan’s letters to Justyce are a gut-punch and what’s toughest to take is that teens — particularly boys, particularly Black boys — may recognize the raw authenticity of every page of it.
The second half, though, is more fictional, with a Hollywood-worthy courtroom drama that’s a little predictable, but that’ll nonetheless please an adult as much as it will a 14- to 17-year-old. So hand this book to your teen, and be sure to sneak it back for yourself.
“Dear Justyce” deserves both your stamps of approval.