Review: The 57 Bus
Title: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives
Author: Dashka Slater
Year Published: 2017
Format: Hardback, library book
Rating: 5 Stars
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Summary: In November of 2013 in Oakland, California, an agender teenager (Sasha) was riding the 57 bus, as they often did. On that same day, another teenager (Richard) with a lighter was riding the 57 bus with his friends. With a flicker of the lighter, both Sasha and Richard’s lives would change forever. Sasha’s skirt would go up in flames and they would endure horrific burns, and Richard would be charged with hate crimes and the possibility of being tried as an adult. Despite their differences (Sasha was from a well-off part of Oakland, white, and in a private school. Richard was from an economically challenged area, African-American, and from a large, public school), both teens had one thing in common – the 57 Bus.
Dashka Slater expands on her The New York Times Magazine article by gathering information from interviews, social media, videos, and public records in this nonfiction narrative. Her writing highlights the complexity behind this case, the many different emotions felt by the Oakland community, and the issues regarding the criminal justice system for juveniles.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t normally read nonfiction. It’s not my cup of tea. However, when this book came through the library’s delivery one Saturday morning, I was immediately drawn to the cover and checked it out on impulse. Truth be told, I found this book to be very important.
Slater tackles many issues in this book including: media representation, flaws in the justice system, LGBTQIA+ issues and discrimination, family, friends, and community, and faith.
November 2013 wasn’t that long ago, but I don’t remember hearing about this case at all. However, had I heard about this case through the media I don’t doubt that I would have been one of the people insisting on locking Richard away based on how the media (news stations, newspapers, etc.) portrayed him. However, the book shows much greater depth to Richard. He was a young, energetic boy who often acted on impulse and was easily influenced by the people around him, including the people who encouraged him to catch the edge of Sasha’s skirt. These people were never charged. The media probably did not discuss that Richard wrote to Sasha and their family, apologizing and admitting guilt. These letters were not given to Sasha’s family for months after the incident, and could have possibly changed how some matters were handled.
This book in no way condones what Richard did, but it does show that he was not the villain he was painted to be by the media (aka a “ganster thug”). Slater reminded readers that he was a young man with friends, a family he loved, and a desire to do better and be better.
Richard is not the only one that fell victim to misrepresentation by the media. Sasha, who uses pronouns “they/them” and does not identify with any gender was described as “a man in a kilt” and similar variations. The problems with that immediately fall within the fact that news outlets assigned Sasha a gender and that their skirt was referred to as a kilt, which is something entirely different.
The Justice System
I thought the explanation of the justice system and the issues with trying juveniles (anyone under the age of 18) as adults can lead to further problems. Race already plays a huge role, which was something I knew. However, I was unaware of how often crimes committed by young people are pushed from juvenile to adult – as seen specially with Richard. The statistics were alarming, especially seeing how many young people often end up back in prison without proper counseling and opportunities to better themselves. It is also important to note just how different the teenage brain (even older teenagers) is than an adult brain. Teens are more impulsive and driven by peer pressure, and while they may know right from wrong, they can still be more reckless.
LGBTQIA+ Issues and Discrimination
Sasha’s mother was concerned about them (who appeared to look like a boy) wearing a skirt on the public bus. So when Sasha’s skirt caught on fire, more attention was brought to the violence people of the LGBTQIA+ community face in their lives. While Sasha attended a more progressive school, the public was still the public and people could prove to be cruel.
Family, Friends, and Community
Often times when a horrific crime occurs I think we tend to focus on the victim and the person who committed the crime, but reading this book reminded me that so many more people are impacted. In terms of Sasha and Richard, their family, friends, and communities were heavily impacted by what happened. It was amazing to see how their friends and family stood by both of them, especially Richard’s mother, Jasmine who clearly loved her son no matter what and did whatever she could for him. Sasha’s school also took a day where everyone wore skirts for to support them. It was incredibly touching and thoughtful.
Richard’s faith is mentioned throughout the book, as is Jasmine’s. Despite what they were going through, they both held on to their faith.
That’s a lot of detail. I know. My head is swimming with thoughts, so I’m sorry this review is so scattered.
Overall, I found this book to be empathetic, informative, and well-written. I enjoyed that the chapters were short, and that Slater provided a great deal of detail on both Sasha and Richard. Both were young people who’s lives were changed very drastically.
Further, I liked that Slater provided timelines regarding gender-neutral acts (bathroom options, etc.) as well as definitions for gender, sex, sexuality, and romantic inclination.
The 57 Bus explored what it means to be an agenderd white person with autism in a well-off area. It explored what it means to be a young African-American man in the court and in the media spotlight. And it showed just how complex crimes are and the difficulties that arise when juveniles are charged as adults – such as the children losing their right to anonymity, behavior issues that arise, and punishment vs. rehabilitation and counseling.
As heartbreaking as this book was to read, I’m glad I read it.
I would recommend this book for anyone to read. It shows that things are not as black and white as they seem, and it gracefully discuses many difficult issues that I could not fully put into words here. I think librarians and teachers should use this book as a teaching tool for book discussion groups and readers’ advisory.
100% recommend this book. It successfully sets a high standard for YA nonfiction.