Book Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here (2018)

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Summary: When Marvin Johnson’s twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.
The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it’s up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.
Pros:
Colorful Characters. We meet a lot of characters in this story. They all stand out on their own I think, with their own usefulness, nicknames and what they mean in Marvin’s, and by extension, Tyler’s life.
  • Marvin Johnson. He is our narrator and he’s just a regular teenager in Alabama. He’s considered an “oatmeal creme pie” because he’s black but “acts white”, whatever that means lol, along with his two best friends. He’s smart, but unlike his brother, he’s the less popular one and maybe more awkward. Marvin wants to go to MIT, he knows that life is challenging due to the color of his skin and he tries to make sure he’s never in the position where his life is threatened, sometimes it just happens. When they have an encounter with an officer in the beginning, he watches his twin become increasingly distant and he worries. He often thinks he should do or say more than what he does, so when Tyler dies, he feels a tremendous guilt that he should have done something to help Tyler. As the book continues, we learn more about his anger, his extreme pain as he feels like his life has been taken away from him because his brother was taken away from him. Marvin is likable, and you really feel for him, but you also root for him to find peace. The fact that the book is told in his point of view, really allows for an up-close and personal look.
  • Tyler Johnson. Yes, he does die, but in the beginning of the book, we get to meet him and love him, and feel conflicted the same way Marvin does. Tyler and Marvin are close, but after an encounter with an officer in the beginning, Tyler becomes distant and we learn that he gets involved with a group of kids who he really shouldn’t. He says that it’s because he wants to help their mother out more around the house, but I think, that he was doing it because he wanted to feel safe or feel that he could protect himself if the time came down to it with another encounter. We don’t really know for sure, but I feel like, from what we’re told about him, that I really do like this kid and I wished he could have lived to live out his life.
  • Mama Johnson. You really feel for their mother. I believe they live in Alabama so she’s constantly worried that something will happen to her two black sons. When Tyler first “goes missing” she believes Marvin’s lie that he was at a friend’s house, and she’s hopeful, especially with the nonsense that happened at the party that everyone heard about. She breaks when Tyler’s body is discovered, and you really hope that she doesn’t remain broken throughout because Marvin needs her as much as she needs him. It’s sad watching her through Marvin’s eyes and how he feels like he can’t do anything for her, but she remains a strong presence for him, especially at the end.
  • Ivy & G-Mo. I put them together, but they are Marvin’s best friends and they complete the “Oatmeal Creme Pie Group”. They are ride or die friends, no matter how much Marvin might push them away in the story, they understand which I liked. They didn’t turn on him in his time of need which showed the strength of their friendship. Anytime Marvin called them and needed them, they answered and came. It was really sweet. Plus, whenever all three of them together, know there might be some corniness going on.
  • Faith. She starts out at this mysterious girl Marvin sees at the party. I at first thought, she was just going to serve a purpose and never show up again, but she becomes a large part of Marvin’s life. She starts out affiliated with Johntae (the gang member Tyler started hanging around) and Marvin goes to her for help, she at first refuses, but his persistency causes her to get more involved. She becomes another lifeline for Marvin and she’s really sweet to him. I wouldn’t have minded if she wasn’t in the story, but I saw the purpose she served, she was someone who entered his life because of the tragedy and remained.
The Story. The idea of a teenaged black boy being killed by a police officer is unfortunately nothing new, especially now. This book is very relevant considering its nature and I think that’s what makes it so powerful and emotional. It’s told from Marvin’s point of view, and we get to see him experience atrocities such as having guns pointed at him, dealing with his wrongfully incarcerated father, his brother who he feels pulling away from, not to mention his brother missing for a large chunk of the book, and worrying about where his life will head next. I think all of this is something that most people, especially young black people will experience and relate to. The principal in the school was absolutely ridiculous and I think people experience that in real life. I just think the story, at its core will hit very close to home.
Powerful Message. The book talks a lot about grief, loss, police brutality, blackness, among other things. I don’t think it rushes past anything, I think the grief is handled as realistically as possible. Marvin is in pain from losing his brother, but he feels a strong guilt as well that he should have done something. Justice, hatred and racism is a large part of the story as well, and Marvin gets to experience it first-hand. Just be prepared to go through a lot during this book, but it’s not preachy. It doesn’t feel heavy handed.
Realistic/Emotional. I teared up in quite a few places while reading. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record in the nature of the book, but I think it’s imperative to know that this isn’t an easy book to read. I mean, what it’s talking about should be something that’s acknowledged and talked about in society period, and Marvin often shares his feelings, I mean it’s in his point of view, but he doesn’t shy away from his anger, confusion or frustration. Reading about him watching his mother fall apart, or reading Marvin trying to make sense of his feelings, or his reaction when he finally sees the video of Tyler’s final moments. It’s pretty heartbreaking.
The Ending. So, I’m going to kind of mention this later, but the actual ending of the book was beautiful. I know what it’s like to have to spread ashes of a family member, it’s kind of weird experience, so I can relate to Marvin in that way. However, while there are still a few things that need to be tidied up, we get a sense of “moving on” for everyone, even Tyler.
The Cover. I mean just look at it. It’s beautiful. I love the flowers and the softness of the black boy. I just like that it’s not aggressive or sensual or any of the typical covers with black teens on the cover. I like that a lot of these young adult covers with black characters are going this route. It shows that our young people can be soft too.
Cons:
Starts off Slow. Because you pretty much know that Tyler dies at some point thanks to the description, you’re waiting for that moment while reading the book. It’s like you’re tense for most of the story, which is a good thing in ways, but it’s also a bad thing, because it takes a while to really gain some traction. I didn’t really get sucked into the story until a bit later, the first few chapters were for setting up, but it did really slowly.
Drawn Out. There are a lot of moments in the book, mostly towards the end, where it felt like it should have concluded many times. There was a part where it was damn near a perfect ending and I don’t think I would have been upset with that being the ending. The actual ending is great, don’t get me wrong, but I got the sense that Jay Coles tried to wrap everything up as best he could, but he could have done it many times.
Overall, I liked Tyler Johnson Was Here, the cover is beautiful, and I wanted to read it from the moment I saw it. I love the cover with the flowers and the soft, handsome black boy on the cover. I like all of the main characters, we definitely get some hated characters like the principal, and Johntae, and of course the police officer, but mostly all of the characters are likable. Especially Marvin and his friends. Marvin is our narrator and he tells the story with an emotional connection that keeps you invested once the story really picks up. It’s a realistic and emotional story that hits close to home with the tragedy of a black boy being murdered by a police officer, not to mention the many encounters of police brutality. I think the dialogue is pretty witty and sounds like black southern teenagers haha, I never felt like they were just characters in a book because some teens talk like that in real life. My only negatives are that the book takes a while to pick up, it starts off with a bang but then it slows down for a while. It kind of does that throughout as it feels like it’s being drawn out, there were many moments where the book should have ended, but it kept going. Don’t get me wrong, the ending was great but there were a lot of moments where it could have ended well. WITH THAT SAID, this is a great read and a great experience. Check it Out.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
What I’m Reading Next:
Scott Pilgrim– Bryan Lee O’Malley (but I’m not going to review these)

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The Last Black Unicorn– Tiffany Haddish (might review this, dunno)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here (2018)

  1. I love this book and read it too! It was in one of my blog posts, actually, for diverse books. I’m constantly looking for diverse books. Any recs? Maybe we could swap recommendations.

    Like

  2. Sounds beautiful. Thank you for a thorough review. would love my so to read it and discuss. Could it be a good book club read for teen boys

    Like

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