Justyce is a straight-A student, well-liked by his peers and teachers, who has hopes of attending an Ivy League school in the fall. None of that matters, though, when he tries to do a good deed one night and drive his drunk ex-girlfriend home. The police officer that handcuffs him sees only a black kid in a hoodie. Although Justyce gets out of custody within a few hours, the incident leaves him shaken and unable to completely return to normal life.
As a poor black kid attending a rich white boarding school, Justyce hasn’t exactly had it easy, but his experience with the police makes him aware of how unfairly stacked the system is against African-Americans. Justyce begins to write letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., as a way to cope with and understand his experience, but the worst is yet to come. His first encounter with police brutality won’t be his last, and he might not make it out unscathed the second time.
For a book that clocks in at just over 200 pages, Dear Martin really packs a punch. Nic Stone carefully explores topics such as white privilege, police brutality, classism, racial profiling, and more. The novel covers a broad range of topics relevant to today’s world but still manages to stay grounded in Justyce’s attempts to make sense of his experiences.
Being a victim of police brutality causes Justyce to take a second look at the world around him, especially the school that he attends. Many of the white students are the kind of people who believe that affirmative action discriminates against white people. Justyce might have been able to brush off their comments and supposed jokes before, but it no longer feels like something he can ignore, not when he’s seen firsthand how quickly racism causes situations to escalate. It can be deeply frustrating to see how many of Justyce’s classmates deny racism is a problem while continuing to uphold it, especially because their thoughtlessness and inability to change is based closely on reality. Many of the students don’t want to take the time to challenge their prejudiced beliefs or examine the privilege that being rich and white gives them in today’s society.
Justyce also has to take a hard look at himself and his biases. Prior to his encounter with the police, Justyce believed that he would never fall victim to police brutality because he’s educated, plans to head to college in the fall, and steers clear of the rampant crime and gangs in his home neighborhood. It comes as a shock to Justyce to realize that he’s been subconsciously holding these beliefs, and that who he is on the inside doesn’t matter at all to people who will make snap judgements about him because of his race.
Besides discussing important societal issues, Dear Martin is written in a unique mix of formats that combine Justyce’s third-person narration, the first-person letters he writes to Martin Luther King, Jr., sections of important news reports, and even script-like debates between characters. I had never encountered a book written like this before, and I really enjoyed it.
However, I felt the script format often meant I couldn’t picture what characters were doing as they were speaking, and it often appeared at random times in the books. The dialogue-heavy format also meant that I was unsure what Justyce was thinking in a few of the scenes, even though he’s the main character. I was also a little disappointed that Justyce’s letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. are mostly a space for him to work out his thoughts about what’s going on his life, especially the love triangle between his ex-girlfriend Melo and his debate partner SJ. I was hoping Stone would use them to discuss the connections between the original civil rights movement and the current Black Lives Matter movement, but their full potential wasn’t quite realized.
The book is pretty short, and while that’s not bad, I don’t think it would have hurt to make it a little longer. There are several time-skips, and a few scenes, such as an important debate meet where Justyce and SJ discuss racial profiling, aren’t shown at all. The short length also meant that some side characters felt a little underdeveloped. Justyce’s ex-girlfriend Melo, for example, is present for his handcuffing but doesn’t interfere because she’s extremely drunk. I thought that the book might use this situation to explore guilt or the bystander effect. However, Melo exists mainly for Justyce’s friend Manny to call her derogatory words for cheating on Justyce.
Although I have a few objections to the writing style, Dear Martin is an important novel that discusses timely issues in a sensitive way. I give it four stars out of five, and definitely recommend the book to any teens seeking to learn more about the issues of race and prejudice in today’s America.
Pie Rasor is a high school senior from Yarmouth, Maine. She’s been writing for almost as long as she can remember. When not writing, she can be found reading, bike riding, or learning strange facts about history. Her work has also been published by the Telling Room and and her school literary magazine, and has received honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
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