book review: Usual Suspects

9780062796318.jpgtitle: Usual Suspects
author: Maurice Broaddus
date: Katherine Tegen Books; May, 2019
main character: Thelonius Mitchell
MG Realistic Fiction
This review is based on an advanced copy.

Maurice Broaddus, an African American male writer, breaks into writing for middle graders with Usual Suspects. His previous short stories, novels and novellas have been written for adults. After spending years working in schools with young people in Indianapolis, the city that serves as the setting for this book, he decided it was time to write for them.

Broaddus’ knowledge for young people is easily apparent. He reflects their adventurous, inquisitive nature in a very light hearted, affectionate manner. In fact, this story is centered so solidly in the world of urban middle schoolers that it is clearly written for that audience.  His writing shares their disdain for all things related to school, their inventiveness with language, their keen ability to judge adults and their interest in video games. He also captures the awkwardness of this age as being children one moment and young adults the next.

The characters are seen more as children toward the beginning of the book where they are given little sense of agency with adults initiating the vast majority of situations. Thelonius’ antics are front loaded. He comes through as a leader who often misuses his talents. He may be a problem to his teachers, but his sense of morality is revealed throughout the narrative. The protagonist and his close associates are all assigned to special needs classes and each of them is labeled with or suspected of having a disability whether they’ve been tested or not, an apparent criticism of the education system. This serves to increase the adult’s authority over them.

A gun is found in the park next to the school and it is assumed by school administrators not only that one of the middle schoolers had something to do with it, but specifically that one of the special needs students is the culprit.

There isn’t any reason to bring a weapon near this building. Not to impress anyone. Not to scare anyone. Not to threaten anyone. It won’t be tolerated.”

After a few heartbearts, I speak up. “And you think one of us brought it.”

Everyone else stares at me with their mouths hanging open, gawking like I’d grown a third arm out of my back.

“When something goes wrong, you just bring in the usual suspects,” I finish. (p.20)

Feeling unsettled by the accusation, Thelonius sets out to find out who really did leave the gun in the park and things suddenly things turn gangster. In asking questions that may help him figure things out, Thelonius is accused of being a snitch. He uncovers nefarious activities that have much more serious consequences than his middle school pranks. The last half of the book has a much different tone than the first half and it’s in this half of the book where Thelonius begins to have agency.

There’s a scene… there are two black women, one an older sister to one of Thelonius’ friends and the other, Thelonius’ mother. They’re quite literally in the middle of the street finishing a fight started by two young boys. The older sister then says the wrong thing.

Moms’s brow knits. Her lips quiver. The large veins in her neck tighten like thick cords. Her lips curl. Her body quakes. Moms’s head ticks to the side. She starts reaching for her earrings, even though she doesn’t actually wear any. Her eyes focus like a missile lock signaling “target acquired” as she switches into a walking nuclear warhead.

“Why wait” I’m right here.” Moms slams her fist onto the hood of her car, buckling the old-faded metal. Moments like these scare me.” (p. 69-70)

If omitted, no information necessary to the story would be lost. Moms never again loses her temper in the story, nor is their reason to think she will and nothing comes of the from the altercation that started this mess. So, why then do we see angry black women confronting each other in the middle of the street? This knowledge that Mrs. Mitchell has a temper doesn’t inform any other incidents in the story.

These middle graders have a lot to prove to both the world and to themselves. They’re often in the care of adults who have little to no interest in preparing their young minds for the world around them. So, they have to take matters into their own hands. It’s a rough world for young people who are usual suspects.

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