YA Book Recommendation – The 57 Bus

Title: the 57 bus, a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives

Author: Dashka Slater

 Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2017

Ages: 12-18

Themes: crime, burning, race, justice, gender, morality, identity, class, hate crime, white privilege, aspergers, lgbtqia+, agender, nonbinary, homophobia, diversity

Genre: nonfiction YA

A Favorite Quote:

Binary

There are two kinds of people in the world.
Male and Female.
Gay and Straight.
Black and White.
Normal and Weird.
Cis and Trans.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Saints and Sinners.
Victims and Villains.
Cruel and Kind.
Guilty and Innocent.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Just two.
Just two.
Only two.”

Synopsis:

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act, left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight. 

Why I like this book:

I am late to the party as I bought this last year for my high school library and have only now gotten around to reading it. But I cannot recommend this book enough. Its scope is large and above all it embraces the stark limitations of looking at the world through a binary lens. Slater’s book is important because it deals with so many charged issues in a sensitive and illuminating way.

It examines what it means to be a privileged non-binary white teen with Aspergers.
It examines what it means to be an African-American male teen from a rough part of Oakland. It examines the criminal justice system particularly where it involves juveniles being tried as adults. It looks at the complexities and problems of assigning a criminal act as a “hate crime”.

The author looks in detail beyond the headlines, dissecting and exploring every part of the tale. Sasha was more than just the victim, and Richard was more than just the perpetrator. We get to know both of the youths as people, dive deep into their lives, and see how different they are. Sasha is white, lives in a wealthier neighborhood, and has Aspergers. They love playing games and inventing languages. We get to know their relationships with their friends, how one came out to them as trans, the games they play with their friends at Maybeck, and even become privy to some texts and IMs that their friends send to each other when Sasha is in the hospital. Richard, on the other hand, is black, lives in East Oakland, and attends Oakland High, described by many as “a tough place”. His mother, Jasmine, had him at 14 years old. He has lost multiple family members to gun violence. He is surrounded by crime and becomes both subject and perpetrator to it. He has a strong relationship with one of the counselors who helps troubled kids.

Both kids lead such different lives, and the detailed analysis of them makes the book incredibly compelling. We also delve into the legal system and restorative justice after the event occurs. One of the most emotional moments in the book is when Sasha’s family at last receive the letters that Richard wrote to them in apology. “I’m not a monster… I’m a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake. I hope you heal correctly. I just wanted you to know that I’m deeply sorry for my actions.”

While nonfiction, the narration has a story-telling feel and I felt swept up immediately into the lives of the two main ‘characters.’ As a novelist, I found the prose mesmerizing. The book is empathetic, and subtle, and cuts through the binary narrative woven by the media to look at the actual people involved and the far more complicated truth that exists for something that most people only learned about through headlines.

An utterly compelling an important read.

Resources:

A class discussion guide.

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1 Response to YA Book Recommendation – The 57 Bus

  1. This is a moving book in the way it shows both kids’ perspectives. And so well-written! It’s also heartbreaking, and I’m glad that it was part of the SFPL’s One City, One Book program as well as suggested summer reading for high school students this past summer. Liam read it last year. Thanks for featuring this one, Joanna!

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