[Tyler Johnson Was Here] Jay Coles

Tyler Johnson Was Here is the second book I’ve read this year that throws light on the experiences of members of the black community in the United States. It focuses on twins Marvin and Tyler Johnson, who are slowly drifting apart as they prepare for college. Marvin wants to be close to his brother again, but there are some things that Tyler isn’t telling him. In an attempt to keep an eye on his brother, he follows him to a party where there’s a shooting. When Tyler doesn’t come home, it’s up to Marvin to cover for his brother. As the hours pile up, Marvin finally reveals the thing that scares him the most: he doesn’t know where Tyler is. When his brother is found dead and a video showing his death surfaces, Tyler is suddenly a hashtag trending on the internet. In his search for justice, Marvin wants to show the world that Tyler was so much more.

This is another hard book to review. I think that the book was successful in telling a story that shows what it means to be black in the United States (and elsewhere in the world, but this is specifically set in the U.S.) and how Marvin Johnson’s whole life––his whole survival––is based around the idea that he has to act a certain way in order to not be killed. This is something that I’ve never had to experience. I have a lot of privilege that allows me to move through life without thinking about daily survival. While I had other lessons on “how to behave,” I didn’t have the lessons that Marvin and Tyler were taught. Books like Tyler Johnson Was Here are part of my lesson in learning how my life is drastically different than others around me. Like The Hate U Give and Long Way DownTyler Johnson Was Here struck me in the heart and made me incredibly angry about the systemic racism that has permeated all aspects of the society of the United States.

It’s impossible to read this book without feeling emotional, and I went through a lot of anger and sadness as I read the story. While this is a fictional story, Coles did a good job of weaving fiction with reality. That’s what makes books like Tyler Johnson Was Here difficult to read.  You can’t just read it as a work of fiction. It can’t be thought of as only a work of fiction when the book illustrates the reality of black men and women being harmed and killed by the police. There’s a reality that is unavoidable when you read books like this, and I don’t recommend that you try avoiding it. It’s something that needs to be read. It’s something that needs to be understood by those who have never had to experience it. It’s so important, and I’m so glad that books like this are being talked about.

The only thing I didn’t like about this story was the pacing. We know from the synopsis of the novel that Marvin’s brother is shot and killed by a police officer. But the actual event doesn’t occur until halfway through the novel, which I personally found to be a mistake. I think it should have been revealed to the characters earlier, because as a reader, I spent a lot of time waiting for Marvin to discover what had happened to his twin. While the first half of the novel meandered until the discovery of Tyler’s death, the second half felt rushed, with the hearing and protests occurring rather quickly. I feel like I didn’t have enough time to feel the impact of Tyler’s death and the subsequent quest for justice before the novel was over.

I think that the reveal of Tyler’s death in the synopsis took away some of the buildup to the climax of the novel. By revealing it before I’d even opened the book, I felt as though I was just waiting for it to happen. It took me out of the book and kept me at a distance, when all I wanted was to be one hundred percent focused on these characters. As a reader, I felt that his death should have been more impactful, but that was taken away because of the synopsis.

That said, I do think that Coles did a good job of paralleling the real world in the ending of his book. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the United States before everyone regardless of skin color feels safe. A book like Tyler Johnson Was Here brings the focus down to one family, making the story more impactful than if you were reading a nonfiction piece. Even though the story of Tyler Johnson is fictionalized, the story of countless other victims of police violence are not.

I think that there is some difficulty in being a book after The Hate U Give, because readers who have read both will naturally compare them, as I did. I wish I hadn’t compared the characters in Tyler Johnson Was Here to the ones in The Hate U Give, but I did. I do think that affected my enjoyment of this novel, because I do wish the characters had been a little more three dimensional. That said, I still think that Marvin’s perspective was very well written and thought out. Having the perspective in first person allowed me to connect with Marvin and his story far better than if it had been in the point of view of another character within the novel.

This novel is great because not only does it give representation to authors and people of color, but it also opens the eyes of white readers who otherwise may not realize this is a part of daily life for other Americans. I think that Tyler Johnson Was Here is a contemporary book that is firmly rooted in the real world despite being a work of fiction. This is a book that I recommend for everyone. It’s not always easy to read, but it’s necessary to open your eyes to other perspectives and realities.

3 stars.

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