Monday, February 19, 2018

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

"A senior at a small private high school, the teenager [Sasha] identifies as agender - neither male nor female...Sasha puts down the book, and drifts into sleep. A few feet away, three teenage boys are laughing and joking...Sasha sleeps...sleeps as Richard surreptitiously flicks a lighter and touches it to the hem of that gauzy white skirt."

I saw Dashka Slater on a panel at the Vegas Valley Book Festival and was shocked that I had not heard about the event that inspired Slater to write The 57 Bus. In 2013, Sasha, an agender teenager who always wears skirts, fell asleep on their way home from school on a city bus in Oakland, California. Richard, a 16-year-old who took the same city bus on his way home from school, touches his lighter to their skirt, setting them on fire. Sasha ends up with second degree burns, has to spend almost a month in the hospital, and needs multiple surgeries to recover from this horrific injury. Richard is arrested by police the next day.

When I saw Slater speak, she described being pulled in by this story as a journalist and realizing that it was too complicated a story for a news article. She had to write a book about it. I will admit that my first reaction was skepticism because there is no question that Richard committed the crime. There is video evidence of him setting an agender person on fire - how is that complicated? By the end of Slater's panel, I felt I had to read the book to investigate it myself. As a librarian, I talk to students all the time about the information cycle and how the news (despite what some people think) is trustworthy, but journalists have a very short amount of time from an event happening to publishing information about the event. This book was published four years after the crime took place, and the story really is that complicated.

An example of the complications is that Richard is being tried as an adult even though he is 16. Sasha and their family did not ask for and do not want Richard to be tried as an adult, but apparently that doesn't matter. 

Another example of the complications is that Richard's two felony charges had a hate crime add on which means he could end up with a sentence of life in prison. 

This one is more complicated - would Richard have set Sasha on fire if Sasha wasn't gender non-conforming? Probably not. But was he, as the police, the DA, and his own confession said, homophobic?* Probably not. Later, when asked what he thought 'homophobic' meant, he couldn't define it. His Instagram had pictures of him wearing women's clothing and accessories to be silly, and he had gay family members that he got along with. (*The term 'homophobic' is the one picked by the DA for the hate crime even though Sasha doesn't identify as homosexual because that term can't really apply to someone who is not on the gender binary in the first place, but, I digress.)

The book is very good and does more than describe a crime and its after effects. We get to know Richard and his family intimately, Sasha and their family intimately, and at the same time receive a well-researched education on gender, sexuality, crime, criminal justice, race, and class. The book just received the Stonewall Young Adult Literature Book Award, which it absolutely deserves.

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