Review by: Theresa Haider
Voted as one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year, and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults 2021, Nic Stone’s Dear Justyce ensnares readers in America’s juvenile justice system and leaves them asking what can be done to change it.
Can Quan overcome what so many around him could not?
Quan, first introduced in Stone’s Dear Martin, confessed to a crime he’s certain he didn’t commit. He’s not perfect like his childhood friend Justyce, protagonist from Dear Martin and current pre-law student at Yale, and this distinction was an important component Stone sought to amplify after being inspired by two young fans of Dear Martin who didn’t see themselves in Justyce. Stone’s story examines the various inequities some young black men and women experience through the American juvenile justice system. Quan desperately wants his freedom but doesn’t have many resources for helping him prove his innocence to gain it. Through letters, Quan rekindles his friendship with Justyce and finds within himself a desire to change the narrative for young black men like him. Through flashbacks and vignettes, both young men reveal the backstory to their friendship and how they ended up taking two different paths. It’s through this communication that Justyce tries to help Quan gain his freedom. Depictions of family tragedy, chaos, personal growth, hope, and kindness are woven through this subtle critique of a flawed system.
Dear Justyce succeeds as multicultural literature in a few ways. First, Nic Stone is a Black woman writing about Black people’s experiences. Second, the use of letters and vignettes allows her to focus on the American juvenile justice system to address stereotype and inequity through the voices of two young Black men who have had vastly different experiences with the system. A third way the novel succeeds as multicultural literature is that Stone gives Quan, who’s in jail due to a poor decision, agency as he unwinds the circumstances that landed him in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s only after Justyce enlists one of his high school teachers, a lawyer, and some law school friends that Quan starts to change. Through letters to and from Justyce, readers see what he’s learning about impactful Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, James Baldwin, and others, and how he connects them to his experiences in the system. Over time, Quan learns to have hope and to believe in himself, too. Quan’s letters speak directly to various stereotypes about young Black men: “I’m looking back now, and so many of us who wind up in here really did want to do shit he right way and be ‘successful.’ But there’s so many other things dudes like us be contending with. Again, not saying that’s an excuse, but I also can’t sit here and pretend like the shit doesn’t matter (187).” Quan has opportunity to reflect on his choices, but also expresses to Justyce a deepening understanding of how the system is flawed. In particular, the process used by police to solve crimes is flawed in such a way that often lands Black men and boys in jail at higher rates than white men and boys. Quan’s internal conflict regarding whether he committed the crime runs parallel to the external conflict that might leave he and his family indebted to a local gang and keep Quan in jail. As Quan learns from Doc and others, and reflects and grows through writing letters with Justyce, so too does his faith in himself. Readers are left with a hope and an understanding that that the system is in need of reform on many levels, and a combination of compassion, education, therapy, and both financial and emotional support for those without any of it is necessary to make lasting change.