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The Boy in the Black Suit coverThe Boy in the Black Suit, Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, January 2015
Reviewed from final copy

Sometimes people who are grieving can find comfort in structured routines. Matt Miller, the titular boy of The Boy in the Black Suit, doesn’t just adopt a routine; he gets a job at a local funeral home where he will witness other people’s grief every day. Quietly sitting in on the services and observing the mourners helps Matt feel like the pain he’s felt following the death of his mother is the same as everyone else’s. It gives him a sense of normalcy when everything in his life has changed. He’s a regular fixture at the funeral home where he meets, of course, someone who challenges everything he thinks he knows about mourning, and that someone is a girl who will change his life.

Jason Reynolds’s sensitive novel about dealing with loss and falling in love has weighty subjects, but reads like a light vignette. He excels at writing an authentically teenage voice—furthermore, Matt really sounds like a teen from Brooklyn—and his characters are believable without being predictable. Even with all of the good here, a Printz award might be a real stretch for this one.

The true stars in this novel are Reynold’s voice and his characters. The first person narration here is deceptively simple. Matt Miller speaks to the reader with a casual, easy tone. He’s warm despite his pain and he’s effortlessly funny. Describing a dreary fall morning, he says, “…there’s a constant mist like someone or something is continuously spitting on you.” The simile is cute; it’s the inclusion of “something,” in the sentence that gives Matt a personality. Reynolds has a great ear for dialogue overall and his transitions into memories and back to the present of the narrative are seamless.

In terms of theme, the book is fairly straightforward in what it has to say about growing up, losing a parent at a young age, and finding someone who “gets” it. The novel’s main weakness is in the plot. Reynolds is focused on setting the scene—Brooklyn is brilliantly rendered—and developing characters while the plot meanders, opening up in various directions. By the end of the novel, some of those plot threads are left dangling. Endings wrapped up like presents are not the right thing for every book, but some of these subplots, especially one involving Matt’s boss/mentor at the funeral home, are tied to characters whose lives were so integral to the main story. When a character is that important and developed, it seems odd when his story just fades away. I could probably make a counter argument about life sometimes taking those turns, but I’d rather hear what you all have to say about it (I’m open to arguments on either side).

Although it’s not perfect, I’m surprised that The Boy in the Black Suit only has one star. Reynolds is an exciting author to watch and his work here is good. Personally, I’m looking forward to reading his next book, All American Boys, co-written with Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter). So how about you, readers? (And by the way, hello! It’s nice to be talking Printz again.) Tell us what you think in the comments!


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