Other Sellers on Amazon
The Usual Suspects Hardcover – May 21, 2019
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Frequently bought together
From School Library Journal
“A rare and much-needed glimpse into the world of exceptional learners.” -- School Library Journal
“[Broaddus] sheds revealing light on the nature of systemic profiling, based on class, race, and neurodiversity, at schools and within society.” -- Publishers Weekly
Through its discerning, young Black protagonist, [The Usual Suspects] tackles difficult subjects with nuance, humor, and heart, always bringing it back to the characters. A great choice for upper middle-graders in search of a fun and meaningful read. -- Booklist
"I want this book, so full of wit and intelligence, raw honesty and clever plotting, to be so well known that when I say “The Usual Suspects” to a room of librarians, their first thoughts involve neither Casablanca or Keyser Soze but this work by Maurice Broaddus."
-- School Library Journal Review of the Day
- Publisher : Katherine Tegen Books (May 21, 2019)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062796313
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062796318
- Reading age : 8 - 12 years
- Lexile measure : 720L
- Grade level : 3 - 7
- Item Weight : 12.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.97 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,128,674 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
Likewise, it lends itself well to discussions of labeling, profiling, independence vs. defiance, and a few other relevant themes.
Personally, however, I found myself constantly cringing at the writing. It a fellow teacher, it was obvious within a few paragraphs that a teacher had written this, and the narrator's penchant for ed-reform buzzwords diminishes his credibility as a middle school voice. I am reminded a bit of Andrew Clements's "Frindle," though I'd say the issue is more prominent here. That being said, the social/societal context and discussion in "The Usual Suspects" is definitely deeper here.
All told, it's certainly worth putting in a UE/MS classroom or school library, but I would probably recommend it for independent, partner, or book club-style reading, rather than as a whole-class or guided reading text.
(Also, the copy-editing of this book certainly leaves something to be desired, though most students probably won't mind this.)
Like the best Elmore Leonard fiction, which the author makes clear in his notes he's emulating, The Usual Suspects is all about a classic crime set up populated by compelling characters, beginning with our main character, Thelonius Mitchell:
So I'm back in the principal's office once again. Due to "my escalating antics" I'm here a lot. Some teachers float the idea that I have oppositional defiant disorder (sometimes I think they just say that about kids who say no to whenever adults tell them to do something, in which case, I have a severe case of it, as does every middle schooler I know). Some keep trying to say that I have bipolar disorder (because my shnanigans are so over-the-top). None of them is a doctor and just wants to sweep me and my issues under the rug. Moms scheduled an exam for me to get tested, but with our insurance, it's over a month out. Until then, I have to spend the rest of the quarter in the Special Ed room.
Thelonius is clever and insightful. He's good at understanding relationship dynamics and how to manipulate them, yet he's far from a criminal mastermind:
Whenever I try to polish my voice like Pierce, I always sound like a con artist on the prowl. Adults grow suspicious and know I am up to something, but they have no proof and need to see whatever I am up to play out. I might as well be a thief sending a note daring the cops to stop me from robbing a joint.
Thelonius is our perspective character, naturally, as this is a story told in the first person present tense, but my favorite character is his friend, Nehemiah Caldwell. Nehemiah also has some issues, including a whole lot of pent up anger, but he made me smile in most every scene he's in. Everyone agrees that Nehemiah couldn't have been the one to leave the gun in the park because if he'd had a gun, he'd have waved it at everyone. Also, Nehemiah's distrust of Teddy Grahams might be my favorite character detail in the book:
Nehemiah bounces his Teddy Grahams package off my chest. He hates them because he "never trusts anything that smiles all the time."
There are a lot of excellent characters populating this story. We're not going to go through each of them one by one, but I would mention just a few more. We'll talk about Marcel in a moment, but first I want to talk about the teachers in this book. Thelonius knows better than to trust any of them, even Mr. Blackmon, who appears to be the most trustworthy. After all, T tells us, "Lying to adults is how we breathe."
But Thelonius does know how to work his teachers: Teachers are like people: if you annoy them, by the time you need something they'll automatically say no just to spite you. Do what they want or make their job easier, they are quick to reward you.
The teachers in this story aren't monolithic villains. In fact, Broaddus goes out of his way to show that in some ways, they're as trapped by the social system of control put in place as the boys are. But they do demonstrate villainous qualities on occasion:
Mrs. Horner rarely comes at things directly. She keeps things vague, saying that she doesn't want to limit our creativity. It's more likely that she wants us to accidentally tell on ourselves.
Mrs. Fitzerald has a swagger to her. A bit of a gangster vibe. She wanders the halls with a beaming smile, but she has a resting teacher face with her eyes narrow like unflinching lasers.
The teachers range from honestly trying to make a positive impact in their students' lives to completely disengaged (one of them is on her phone checking Facebook all day) to outright hostile toward the students and our heroes. Broaddus' observations about teachers are probably based on his years of experience working in education, and that honest look at teacher student dynamics is one of the strongest aspects of The Usual Suspects.
There's one other character readers are going to love and no review would be complete without mentioning her:
Her dad, a black dude, is a scientist who often visits her class to talk about his work. Her mom, a white lady, is the president of the PTA who also bakes a mean batch of brownies come school fund-raising season. If Marcel came from money, she never acted like it. Marcel always received straight A's. By all reports, she was the best-behaved kid in the class. But I know better. The quiet ones are the ones everyone really has to watch out for. You see, an obvious stickup thug might get a wallet or two. Put them in bankers' suits and they were robbing folks for millions on Wall Street.
Marcel was strictly Wall Street.
Marcel is a cool customer. I can't tell you a whole lot about her without spoiling some specific plot details, but readers are going to find her fascinating. And more interesting to me at this moment is the first two lines of her description, which are about her parents. To the best of my recollection, Marcel's mom is the first "white lady" in the story.
Not every character's race is specified, but most of the character's who's coloring is mentioned are described as having skin "the shade of sunbaked cinnamon," or "the color of rich sepia," or "the complexion of milk with a dab of butter in it." The effect of this is that "not white" becomes the readers' default assumption about which race each character is, a refreshing change of pace, especially for a middle grade novel coming out of Indiana (former home of the head of the Klan not nearly long enough ago).
The Usual Suspects isn't about race, exactly, but it's not not about race. Just like it's not strictly about kids with special needs, but it's not not about them:
Moms explained what she has, something about being on the autism spectrum. I hear so many labels placed on me and my friends, I tune them out.
On its surface, The Usual Suspects is a fun middle grade crime novel with memorable characters and a quality mystery to be solved. Esteemed Readers looking for a good story well told will absolutely find it here and will join me in hoping Maurice Broaddus publishes more middle grade novels right away. We need as many of them as we can get.
But The Usual Suspects is really about multiple intersecting social dynamics and how they can trap and label all of us, not just the kids perceived as troublemakers, but also their teachers, their parents, other children in the neighborhood, and so on. Because all of us have assumptions made about us based on the broad categories society has placed us in. All of us are suspect.
Do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader, and get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects. It's themes are universal and you will be captivated by Broaddus' style and structure and his ability to present authentic characters in relatable situations.
More, if there's a problem child in you life, they need to read this book. I wish this book had been around when I was an adolescent and automatically suspected of wrongdoing by some of my teachers (I wasn't always a fine, upstanding Ninja). I don't know that it would've necessarily changed much for me (young me was pretty committed to being troublesome), but sometimes it's enough to know that someone else understands the experience and can relate.
As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Usual Suspects:
I catch myself as my hand moves to my chest to protest my innocence. That kind of theatricality would be insulting to both of us.
That girl can't find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.
"I'm better than his momma. I'm actually here." Moms lets that line sit in everyone's ear for a minute, like she wants it to travel the neighborhood, before she continues.
Some still go on about the hottest Pokemon cards. They are so sixth grade.
Twon knocks over another chair like Superman casually tossing a tank.
One kid lingers by the pencil sharpener opposite from us. Marquees Neal. "Kutter" to (what few people he called) his friends. His hair is a crown of twists, nesting baby snakes poised to strike. His eyes seem perpetually narrowed, like jagged scars.
You know that special ed class where a school will toss all the kids they don’t really want to deal with? It’s a room of troublemakers. A room of scapegoats. A room ruled by Thelonius Mitchell. With a brain that’s always working, Thelonius sees through every person he comes across, working the angles, figuring out their weaknesses. Then, one day, he finds himself in a precarious position. A gun has been found on school grounds and by dint of being the usual suspects, the special ed kids are now under close scrutiny. Thelonius is used to the world thinking the worst of him, but this is a whole other level of injustice. It’s enough to get him investigating on his own. But as he begins questioning the different factions and kids of the school, it becomes clear that there are forces at work here that would like nothing better than for him to drop the whole case. And they’re willing to go to some pretty far lengths to make sure he knows exactly who’s in charge.
In 2019, the year of this book’s publication, middle grade fiction has made a huge shift away from the fantasy novels and apocalyptic fiction of the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” era. As any news channel will tell you, confrontations with reality yield far more drama than any dragon or bleak future could muster. In response, I’ve seen author after author attempt to render the times in which we live into palatable fiction for young readers. The best amongst them respect the kids. They know that children see far more than we ever give them credit for. The worst come off as preachy pablum, trying to instill lessons in great inelegant chunks. Many of these books tackle the topic of systematic oppression and racial inequities, both historical and ongoing. Some will talk about the police and others about protests and taking a stand. At first glance, “The Usual Suspects” wouldn’t strike you as one of these books. It’s fun, witty, and bouncy at times. Yet when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you see how Maurice Broaddus is doing something better than telling. He’s showing. Time and again, Thelonius outlines what it is like to live in a system where you’ve been labeled as a bad kid from the get-go. Constantly facing accusations and inequities, he’s shut down internally. Once in a while he’ll allow himself to have a dream for his future, but most of the time his head is full of the messages he’s been handed. His saving grace is that he can see outside himself a little. He says, “Stories are all about how they are read, not the teller’s intent. Sometimes the intent and the meaning match up, but sometimes they don’t. It’s easy to let a bad story get in you and define you. To let that version of how people see you soak in and take root, growing inside you until you find yourself becoming and acting out that story. It’s one reason I’m as suspicious of ‘teachers’ as they are of me.” And by putting you in T’s head, that oppression is more tangible than a million books that merely talk about oppression. Broaddus has just put it in terms you can understand with people a lot of kids see every day but don’t see, if you get my meaning. By giving voice to the voiceless, he’s redefining what it is to be a middle grade novel about systematic racism.
They will tell you that folks that like Jason Reynolds or Sharon Draper would like this book. I have no idea why they say this. I mean, I know why, but Maurice Broaddus doesn’t write a thing like either of them. I saw someone online compare it to “Maniac Magee” which rubs me the wrong way entirely. You know what I thought of when I read this book? I thought of “Harriet the Spy”. Not the cutesy version people, who haven’t read it in 20+ years, remember, but the actual book. The one about the kid who’s smarter than most of the people around her, but self-sabotages herself every step of the way. When I read this book I also thought of the movie “Brick”, in which a kid conducts a thorough investigation, but must wrangle with various factions at school that want to stop his detective work cold. But the thing I thought about most is actually mentioned within the book itself. At one point Thelonius says, “Moms got me into reading Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books.” Now I have lived a long time, but I’ve never seen a middle grade author make a pass at replicating Mosley for younger readers. What we seem to have here is something entirely new.
Let’s talk compelling characters. Which is to say, let’s talk Thelonius himself. Written in the first person, he’s not a cipher but nor is he a Nick Carraway, commenting on people more interesting than himself all day long. One of the problems I often detect in first person narratives is that the main character just doesn’t have that interesting an interior life. Not a problem here. Thelonious just brims with insights, smart takes, and a jaded outlook on the adults around him. Broaddus continually peppers the book with off-handed comments that drill down deep into his main character’s core. Take when Thelonius is on the basketball court. When he has the ball, he’s a hog. And when he’s called out on this he says, “When the ball isn’t in my hands, when I’m not in control, I’m helpless. I can run around all I want, make screens, confuse the defense, but the reality is that whoever has the ball determines the action.” Look at the seeming effortlessness of that statement. There’s an elegance to the writing here. The author is trusting that the young reader will read more into that statement than what appears on the surface. That’s what I mean when I say he treats his readers with respect. Like they have brains or something.
And Thelonius, while we’re talking about him, is himself limited. He’s interesting because you sometimes have a hard time rectifying his actions with his interior monologue. You like this kid pretty early on. Broaddus should probably give seminars on writing likeable flawed characters. At the same time you (and I think child readers would feel this as much as adult) are frustrated that he’s squandering his talents on various pranks. By the end of the book you get a glimmer of a sense that he might find a way to break out of his own self-imposed limitations, but clearly a sequel (hint hint hint hint) would be of use here. At one point he says, “I’m trying to do better, but I’m not sure what better looks like just yet. I think of it as using my powers for good against a bad guy. I may need to work on developing new powers, but until then, I’m going with what I know.”
Of course, to get at the other characters in this book you have to go through Thelonius’s lens, and there’s a danger to that. If he’s too insightful then he starts sounding like an adult and you don’t trust your narrator’s voice. So the author has to walk this line between Thelonius’s deep-seated intelligence about his fellows, and the limitations of his own (admittedly magnificent) brain. Broaddus, once again, solves much of this with descriptions that say more than they say. Of Nehemiah it says, “Compared to him, I’m sculpted like an Olympian. He seems built like a collection of angry twigs.” Rodrigo Luis, “has the body of a third grader who had a diet of only leaves and water.” A particularly nasty character’s smile, “was ugly and jagged, like someone took a broken bottle and carved a slit where a mouth should be.” Tellingly, Thelonius is best at understanding people when they’re young. Adults throw him for more of a curve. He can’t separate their actions and intentions from the system they’ve signed on to and it makes him permanently skeptical of their actions. He loves his mom (who is a powerhouse of a woman that probably deserves a book of her own) but anyone in his school or associated with his school is immediately on watch in his eyes.
We all have our preferences in the books we read. My preference is towards middle grade novels filled with sentences that pop off the page and dance around for a while. Honestly, you could not have constructed in a lab a book as jam packed with sentences more delicious than the ones found here. Some of my favorite examples:
- When Thelonius’s mom gets off the phone with Nehemiah’s mom or grandma, “After a few minutes on the line with them, she stared at our phone like it was an alien tongue trying to lick her.”
- Nehemiah’s grandma, “wears misery for makeup and chugs bitterness for vitamins.”
- Of a fellow student, “his hair is a series of short dreds in need of tightening that stand nearly straight up so it looks like he’s wearing a fallen crown.”
- “Nehemiah bounces his Teddy Grahams package off my chest. He hates them because he ‘never trusts anything that smiles all the time’.”
- “That girl can’t find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.”
At one point in the book Thelonius talks about the difference between himself and the kids that are beloved by the teachers. The ones that obey all the rules without question. He says, “they’re always going to fit in. Nothing wrong with that. We just come at the world different because it comes at us different. It comes hard, we go hard. We don’t fit in with how the system wants to define us and sometimes we have to turn the system on itself for us to get by.” Even the adults that want to help are held back by this same system, and in many ways it’s the small changes Theolonius makes at the end, and not the solution to the mystery, that’s the real success. You want to know the real reason I compare this book to “Harriet the Spy”? Because it feels like the author is handing truths to the kids reading it, completely bypassing the adults of the world. It feels sneaky. I can see a kid gleaming truths from these pages that they have NEVER encountered anywhere, with the possible exception of their own brains. I can see adults becoming uncomfortable with just how much honesty is on display here. It gives away the game, this book does. It’s always a good idea to sometimes read a book that’s smarter than you are, starring a kid that’s smarter than the world around him. You know why I haven’t heard more people talking about this book? Because nobody knows how to sell it. Well, sorry folks, but the secret is out now. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read for kids, and maybe the best school rated children’s novel I’ve encountered period. This, right here, is the book of our times.
For ages 9-12