In this book, Justyce’s classmate, Quan, writes letters to him from jail. Justyce gave the notebook of letters he wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Quan and Quan reads them, writing back to Justyce about some of the letters while also telling him his own story. Through Justyce, Stone tells the story of a young man who did not have some of the advantages Justyce did, although he had plenty of the smarts, and examines how easy it is for Quan to get into serious trouble.
I found Dear Justyce especially moving because of the young men who I have met during my time as a corrections librarian who very well could have been Quan. There have been a number of guys whose stories just break my heart, because of how much they had to offer, but how much was stacked against them. For some of them, it seems like they never even had a chance. Quan’s father is in prison. His mother is abused by a series of boyfriends, the last of whom steals her EBT card and disappears for long enough stretches that Quan and his siblings start to starve. Quan turns to stealing to feed them. Before he knows it, even as he keeps his grades up at school, he gets involved with a gang for the community and protection it offers. And things escalate from there (I won’t spoil it).
The letters from Quan to Justyce are sometimes very direct about the intersection of racism and juvenile justice. Quan points out several times that there is a big disparity between the sentences Black kids get and the sentences White kids get for much more serious charges. Other times, such as when Quan gets involved with the gang, the story lets the reader ponder Quan’s choices and the larger societal issues they reflect.
One of the aspects of Dear Martin that I found especially productive was how Nic Stone uses Justyce’s letters and his experiences to examine different facets of systemic racism. Dear Justyce has a much narrower focus and because of this I think it works well as a companion to Dear Martin, but may not stand as well on its own.
I was not so sold on the novel’s turn to legal drama as Justyce gets involved in Quan’s court case, but it works as a primer on how plea bargaining works (or doesn’t) and how the justice system fails kids like Quan.