By Elizabeth Wroten
YA Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
On 23, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.
I know some people really hate when reviewers say a protagonist is relatable, especially when they are non white, because it implies that only likable characters are worth reading about and as if white audiences will only read books about people of color if they can relate. I get it, but I’m going to describe Matt as relatable. And not because he’s a decent kid living in a bad neighborhood. He’s relatable because he’s pretty average. He does fine in school; he has a two parent household; he lives in a house; he has a best friend; and he likes girls. Obviously these things don’t describe all kids, but it was refreshing to read a story about a kid who was coping with his grief, but was otherwise unremarkable and hadn’t been dealt six other horrific and terrible things that he had to work through.
I read another review of the book that thought it was creepy and weird that Matt decides he likes sitting in on funerals, but I completely disagree. Matt is grieving for his mother and he finds solace in knowing he isn’t the only person hurting. Matt’s sitting in on funerals isn’t about a fixation with death, just an inability to move on in his grieving process and a part of that process. As I said, Matt is an average guy and the whole funeral thing doesn’t consume his life nor is it an indication of anything but his mourning process. When he meets Lovey at her grandmother’s funeral she doesn’t seem to be hurting the way he is and that draws him to her. He thinks she holds some magic key to letting grief go. Ultimately it’s the fact that she is and isn’t hurting that helps Matt learn how to move past deep sadness. She is a good friend and great relationship for him to cultivate at the right time and I think that’s a really powerful message and example.
Reynolds can clearly write. The book was fantastic. He even managed to pull off something I find incredibly irritating, which is using slang in dialog. Oftentimes you have slang that contrasts with the narrative prose of the rest of the book and it feels awkward. Not so here. Reynolds has also created characters that are so easy to want to get to know and that you root for. There was also a twist that I didn’t see coming. Not a twist like a murder mystery, but some plot lines converged in a surprising and unexpected way that was jarring and awesome at the same time.
I think high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, will simply like Matt and they will understand what he’s struggling with. They’ll connect with his story and want to follow him through his grief out to the other side where he can live his life. Based purely on setting I would give this to fans of How It Went Down, but The Boy in the Black Suit is a book about a normal kid having a hard time coping with something that gutted him. While not every kid loses a parent so young, every kid understands both how hard that could be and how one thing can change everything for you. Give this to kids who like character-driven realistic fiction that feels modern and fresh.