The Boy in the Black Suit, a 2015 young adult novel from author Jason Reynolds, follows Matt Miller as he grieves the death of his mother, starts a new job at a funeral home, and falls for a charming, self-reliant young woman who works at a local fast food joint.
Here are a few things kidlit writers can learn from Jason Reynolds’s second novel.
1. Sad and funny can––and should––go hand in hand.
There’s no way around it––Matt’s life is tough right now. Matt’s mom has just passed away, and his dad is struggling. Matt’s not really into his classes, although he’s doing fine academically. Basically, he’s ready to get out of high school and on with his life. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that, with that setup, it just doesn’t seem like this book is going to be all that humorous…
But turns out, it is. And Reynolds pulls the humor off beautifully. Matt is wry and self-deprecating, witty and warm. As his emotions begin to thaw, Matt reveals himself to be an immensely appealing, funny, and varied character. He begins to joke again. To live.
Reynolds also gives us a healthy dose of humor around the funeral home, with goofy situations that crop up even in the saddest of circumstances, and characters who thrive despite interacting with grief every day. Juxtaposed with the humor, we can understand the depth of Matt’s grief––and the sadness makes the light parts all the more airy.
2. Secondary characters teach us about main characters.
When Matt takes the job at the funeral home after his mom’s death, he begins spending a lot of time with Mr. Ray, the owner of the funeral home. Mr. Ray becomes a mentor and a father figure for Matt as he navigates his grief––but a bit of a foil for him, too. Mr. Ray is always talking about how he was irresponsible when he was a kid, and how Matt’s so different from him: on the right track, good in school. We learn a lot about Matt through Mr. Ray’s impression of him––these are aspects of Matt’s character he wouldn’t have revealed to us himself.
We also learn something about Matt through his willingness to build a relationship with Mr. Ray, who’s known as a bit of an eccentric around the neighborhood. As their friendship grows, Matt finds out there’s a lot more to Mr. Ray than meets the eye. Seeing Matt’s willingness to delve deeper makes Matt all the more likable, and helps us trust Matt as we follow him on his journey through grief, too.
3. A vivid setting can function like a character.
Matt’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood plays a huge role in the story. Reynolds crafts a setting that’s rich, vibrant, and gritty. There’s the Cluck Bucket, a local fast food place where Matt tries to get a job. There’s the bodega near Matt’s house, where they’ll cut you a deal if you’re short on cash. Then there’s Chris’s apartment, where rules include leaving takeout boxes in the fridge overnight so the mice don’t get at them.
Matt rarely walks down the street without bumping into someone he knows––it’s a tight-knight community, adding a texture to Reynolds’s book that makes it all the more interesting to read.
Whether your book takes place in the city or the suburbs or the faraway corners of the Chilean Patagonia, remember to work that setting to your advantage, and use it to highlight aspects of character and plot that you wouldn’t be able to bring out otherwise. The Boy in the Black Suit does this very well, and it’s a great reminder of how setting can really make a book shine.
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