I recently finished reading Jay Cole’s book, Tyler Johnson Was Here. It’s a young adult novel. Still, it speaks to some important themes that surged to the forefront of American discourse in 2020. Specifically: Police Brutality, Systemic Racism, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I heard about the book from a video posted by our church network. The author was interviewed — not just as a writer, but as a colleague (a missionary at a collegiate church on campus at Ball State University). And even though the book was primarily written for a younger audience, I found it compelling and beneficial.
The story follows a set of twins growing up in a primarily-Black neighborhood called Sterling Point. One has high ambitions to study at a premiere university. The other feels compelled to support his family through selling drugs. Tragedy interrupts their lives, however, and the survivor must grapple with the aftermath.
The cover of the book included the phrase, “My brother is not your hashtag.” So I don’t feel bad about playing the role of “spoiler” with the summary above. What surprised (and benefitted) me the most about the book, however, was the lead-up to that tragedy. For awhile, it seems like the narrative’s inciting incident is going to happen in the first chapter of the book. Consequently, I found my pulse racing and my breathing shallowed, as I read about a late-night interaction between the high-school-aged protagonists and a neighborhood police officer. It felt like I was a part of that group, wondering what would happen, fearing for my life. When the situation resolved (albeit temporarily), I calmed down and realized that the book helped me to vicariously experience a situation common to many people of color.
I appreciated the way that the book continued to follow the old writers’ adage: “Show, don’t tell.” I learned about Racism, White Privilege, and Systemic Oppression without overly-pedantic explanations. These societal challenges manifested themselves in the landscape and language of Marvin and Tyler Johnson. And I think that was the greatest success of the book.
Make no mistake: Tyler Johnson Was Here reads like a young adult novel. It includes a lot of hormonal urges, angst, and insecurity that are hallmarks of books designed for this demographic. Some of the characters felt real and three-dimensional. Others did not. I would say that the first half of the book was stronger than the second half of the book. Some parts dragged. Still, it was pretty impressive for Coles’ debut novel. I look forward to reading more of his books in the future.