Quan is only 13 years old when he’s arrested for the first time, and he’s 16 when he confesses to shooting a white police officer (a crime, readers later find out, he didn’t actually commit). Throughout the novel, Nic Stone goes to great lengths to make sure that readers understand that Quan, his peers in the Black Jihad gang, and the vast majority of other characters in Dear Justyce are children, not adults, and should be treated as such. Because these children are Black though, others—especially those in the overwhelmingly white justice system—treat these children as though they’re adults starting at a very young age. Through Quan’s story, the novel suggests that racial bias robs Black children of their childhoods and their innocence long before they’re ready to grow up.
The structure and setup of Dear Justyce underscore that Quan, Justyce, and their peers are children. Chapters, for instance, have titles like “Snapshot: One Boy Alone in a Library (2012)” and “Snapshot: A Boy Meeting a Man (2016).” The boy referenced in these chapter titles is Quan, though chapter titles also sometimes refer to boys like Justyce or Justyce’s white friend Jared, driving home the point that Quan and Justyce (who are 18 and 19 in the novel’s present) are children in the novel’s many flashbacks. This highlights and calls into question the cultural narrative that sees Black people in the United States (and Black males in particular) as adult and dangerous at a very young age. This line of thinking reflects widespread racial bias amongst white people, and it has no basis in reality—in other words, the novel emphasizes that a 12-year-old Black boy is a child, just like a 12-year-old white boy is a child. The novel also shows that Quan is a child through his love of the rocket ship structure at the local playground. For years, Quan goes and hides in the rocket ship so he can imagine blasting off to a place where he’s safe and happy. This is something he does well into his teen years, illustrating how young and powerless Quan feels. Like many children, Quan has to turn to his imagination to protect himself from the harsh realities of the real world—and when the city removes the rocket ship from the playground, Quan feels like his childhood is effectively over.
Dear Justyce emphasizes that Quan is still a child to show how he’s unfairly treated as an adult by law enforcement—and sometimes, he’s not even treated like a human being. For instance, when Quan’s Daddy is violently dragged out of his home and arrested one night for dealing drugs, Quan (who’s 11 at the time) doesn’t escape unscathed. Rather, a huge, burly police officer picks Quan up and squeezes him so tightly that he can barely breathe. In his terror and confusion, Quan screams and struggles—understandably, given that he watches officers knock Daddy out before tossing him into a police van. Further, this passage includes clues that drive home just how young Quan is—he’s wearing Iron Man pajamas, and he’s so frightened that he wets himself. It’s clear to readers that Quan is a terrified little boy, not a dangerous adult who needs to be forcibly restrained. Later, as Quan begins committing crimes, the novel still encourages readers to see him as a child, not as an adult. During his first arrest at age 13, he steals a pack of playing cards simply because he feels like he needs to control some part of his life, and stealing allows him to have that sense of control. But the storeowner doesn’t give Quan the opportunity to simply put the cards back and leave the store, something that would acknowledge that Quan is a child in need of guidance and possibly a warning. The storeowner instead calls the cops—and the cop manhandles and verbally abuses Quan until, terrified, Quan wets himself again. The cop taunts Quan for acting like a scared little boy, but the novel suggests that that’s precisely the point: Quan is still a child.
Dear Justyce insists that the criminal justice system robs Black boys of their childhoods, unlike their white counterparts. After his first arrest, Quan meets an older boy named Trey. At 15, Trey has been in trouble with the law for years already, so he’s able to comfort Quan after the arrest. But Trey also articulates how unfairly Black boys like him and Quan are treated when they get in trouble. He describes how his Jewish lawyer told him about his son’s upcoming bar mitzvah, which would symbolically make his 13-year-old son a man. The lawyer was “shook” when Trey asked if he’d ever tell his son what the top cold Trey upon Trey’s arrest, that if “You wanna act like an adult, the law will treat your ass like one.” To the lawyer, it’s disturbing and shocking to think that the law would treat his 13-year-old son as an adult—while for Black boys like Trey and Quan, this is the norm. Years later, Quan sees the effects of this in the juvenile detention system. He writes to Justyce and tells him about how the Black and Latino kids in detention serve long sentences for minor crimes, like petty theft or even just knowing someone who’s in a gang. But white kids who end up incarcerated—like one boy who murdered his sleeping father with a butcher knife—get short sentences if they’re sentenced to serve time at all, and are assigned community service otherwise. Those white kids, in other words, aren’t treated like adults in the eyes of the law. They’re allowed to move on from their mistakes and resume their childhoods, while their Black counterparts will often end up imprisoned well into middle age. While the novel offers no tangible remedies for this, it advocates strongly for seeing Black children as children, who are just as deserving of compassion, kindness, and understanding as anyone else.
Justice, Racial Bias, and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Justice, Racial Bias, and Growing Up Quotes in Dear Justyce
His foot hit [a cup of ginger ale] as the officer with his dumb, muscly arm crushing Quan’s rib cage carried Quan through the kitchen like Quan was some kind of doll baby.
The sudden freezing air as Quan was whisked outside in his thin Iron Man pajamas with no shoes or jacket...and the subsequent strange warmth running down Quan’s legs when he saw Just. How. Many.
Even at twelve, it didn’t escape Quan’s notice that the men in his mama’s life—Daddy included—used money to get her to do what they wanted her to do. It bothered him no end. But he wasn’t sure what he could do about it.
Which became a running theme: not knowing what he could do about anything.
So he stayed focused.
“And best believe your father is gonna hear about this. Might even send him the evidence of your indiscretion.” Quan could hear the paper crinkle as she surely held it up in the air. “Cheating. I can’t even believe you—”
And that was all he heard. Because in that moment everything crystallized for Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr.
It didn’t matter what he did.
Staying focused didn’t give Quan any control at all.
So he told Mama—who for the first time wasn’t healing from a COAN encounter—that he was going out.
And he headed to his former favorite playground place.
Stepping over the latest evidence of unsavory activity inside his rocket ship (at least there wouldn’t be any babies or diseases?), Quan climbed up to the observation deck. Largely to hide himself from anyone who might take issue with/make fun of an almost-thirteen-year-old hanging out in the grounded space vessel.
But once he got up there, Quan relaxed so much, he fell asleep.
He locked eyes with the cop, and the Bad (Dad) Night washed over him, and his chest
the way it had when kid-snatcher cop had Quan’s scrawny eleven-year-old torso wrapped in that death grip.
Wasn’t the best time for it either. Swole Cop took Quan’s inability to answer questions—
We got a problem here, son?
You hear me talkin’ to you?
So you’re a tough guy then?
Not gonna answer my questions?
—as an act of defiance.
Quan found air the moment Swole Cop’s ham-ish hand locked around Quan’s (still scrawny) upper arm in a death grip.
Trey couldn’t have known it (or maybe he could’ve?), but in that moment, Quan didn’t actually want to be alone.
He needed a friend.
Someone who cared.
Because from the moment Mama and Quan had stepped out of the fluorescent-lit law-and-order lair into the crisp Georgia evening, it was crystal clear to Quan that she no longer did.
“It’s this ceremony where a young Jewish dude becomes ‘accountable for his actions.’” He used air quotes. “So he goes from ‘boy’ to ‘man,’ essentially. Lawyer homie is sitting there all geeked, telling me about it, and I’m thinking to myself: So your son is a grown man by Jewish standards, yet still gets treated like a kid. Meanwhile ain’t no ceremonies for kids like us, but if we get in trouble we get treated like adults.”
Quan’s gaze drops. Lands on a word carved into one of the bench’s wooden slats in little-kid lettering:
F U K C
What are kids like Quan supposed to do?
He swipes at his dampening eyes and shifts them back to the black hole where his galactic getaway vehicle used to be.
Dwight is dead.
And Quan is here. Stuck. Grounded.
No getting out.
No flying away.
No lifting off.
Because Dwight’s death wasn’t an accident.
I guess I didn’t realize just how big of a difference it could make to have somebody really believe in you. I been thinking a lot about Trey and Mar and Brad and them. We were all looking for the same things, man—support, protection, family, that type of shit. And we found SOME of it in one another, but we couldn’t really give each other no type of encouragement to do nothing GOOD because nobody was really giving US any. Matter fact, we typically got the opposite. People telling us how “bad” we were. Constantly looking at us like they expected only the worst.
How the hell’s a person supposed to give something they ain’t never had?
He kept pushin’. Come on, kid. We know you did it. Might as well just say so...shit like that.
When he said You know if we get one of your little buddies in here, we can get ‘em talkin’. You should just save ‘em the trouble, that’s when I broke. Just said
Fine, man. I did it. You happy now?
She came in and we talked for a while and she asked me a bunch of questions the other dude never asked. And I’m pretty sure she actually believes everything I told her. Which was even a little bit uncomfortable despite the fact that I was telling the truth.
I just didn’t realize what a difference it would make to be in conversation with someone who genuinely wants to keep me OUT of prison altogether. Shit made me realize that in all my years dealing with the system, I ain’t never had an attorney who wanted to see me totally free.
But he was telling me how growing up, he was this real good kid, until some stuff happened to his family.
So he went looking for a new family. Like a lot of us do. Same story with another dude we call Stacks. He’s constantly talking about “this guy” he knows (aka himself) and how “he was workin’ to become a musician,” but “he was young and ain’t have no guidance”; how “he just wanted a family so he went and found one,” but then “he got in trouble doing family shit.”
And that’s what it comes down to. We find the families we were desperate for and learn different ways of going about things. Ways that sometimes land us in places/positions we don’t really wanna be in.
“Gabe misses you,” his mama says, and she might as well have dropped a bucket of ice water on his head.
He’d get up and walk away if not for the fact that it’s his mama.
And beneath all his fury,
he still wants her to love him.
This is a real-ass Catch-22. I read that shit a couple weeks ago. (HELLA trippy book.) The only way to stay OUT of what I really have no choice but to go back to is to stay IN here. But the longer I’m IN here, the more debt I’ll rack up for when I do get OUT.
Kind of a no-win, ain’t it?
Story of my damn life.
What if it wasn’t me? What if it was a kid
LIKE you? One with your exact history?
Quan had to think then. But not for long. Because that answer was obvious too. “I’d still invest.”
“Time. Energy. Resources...” The next word shocked him as it popped off his tongue; it bounced around the room in an echo-ish way the others hadn’t: “Belief.”
“Yeah. Everyone should have somebody who believes in ‘em. Like no matter what they’ve done. Somebody who won’t give up on them.”
“No strings attached.”
He did get the point then. HE was willing to do for someone else what was being done for him. At no cost and with no strings. It was the right thing to do.
The two BIG boys—if you can even call them that—chillin’ at the top of the climbing wall are wildly oblivious to the glares aimed at them from the actual children below.
“You miss [the rocket ship]?”
At first, Quan doesn’t respond. Because he really has to think about it. His eyes roam the always-clean park space. Touch on his mom [...] his sister [...] his brother [...] his best friend right beside him.
Only thing missing is his dad. But they write to each other weekly, and Quan’s been out to visit the old man a few times, so even that’s okay.
He smiles. “You know what, man? I don’t.”
“Nah,” Quan says. “No need to go to outer space.”
“Everything I need is right here.”