A true-crime, legal thriller. A stirring treatise on diversity, gender, race, crime and justice. In The 57 Bus, award-winning journalist and author Dashka Slater offers a window into America in all its tangled complexity. The author talks about nonfiction aimed at teen readers, the power of restorative justice, the importance of community and more.
The 57 Bus started out as an article for the New York Times Magazine. How and why did you decide to target teen readers with this book-length project?
The whole time I was working on the Times Magazine article, I was also fantasizing about writing the story in a different way, for a different audience. It seemed clear to me that teenagers would find the characters compelling and I wanted them to have a chance to grapple with the complex issues the story raises: issues about either/or narratives, about race, gender, class, justice and forgiveness. At the same time, I wasn’t sure if YA nonfiction of this type was even a thing. As it turned out, my editor at FSG, Joy Peskin, read my piece and immediately contacted my agent to see if I would be interested in writing it as a book for teens. It felt like kismet.
Superficially, The 57 Bus is about two people in Oakland and the bus ride that leaves one severely burned and the other facing criminal charges. But it is so much more expansive than that. You bring multiple, overlapping communities into the story. Was this emphasis on community and interconnection a response to the facts of Sasha and Richard’s stories, or was this a larger worldview you brought to the work?
A little of both. I’ve always been interested in communities of all kinds—from renaissance fair jousters to cryptography hackers to small towns afflicted by toxic spills. I’m the daughter of a sociologist (Philip Slater, author of The Pursuit of Loneliness) and a psychologist (playwright Dori Appel). I was raised to understand that people don’t exist in a vacuum: We are all part of a family, a community, a society and an environment that shapes who we are and how we see the world. Given that understanding, it felt clear to me that Sasha and Richard’s stories couldn’t be told without some context for the worlds in which they lived.
When people discuss social justice today, intersectionality is a big buzz word. What do you think your book has to say about intersectionality? What can it add to these discussions?
The two protagonists in the book have very different experiences with race, gender and class. I hope that readers will think about the ways in which these experiences and identities overlap and inform one another, as well as the ways in which they differ. But to be honest, I wish there was more intersectionality in the book. A book that is about rejecting binaries would have benefited from the voice of an LGBTQIA+ person of color, for example. But the person in this narrative who could have spoken to that experience elected not to, for reasons of their own.
Though it raises many important questions, The 57 Bus offers no easy answers. The closest we get to an answer is restorative justice, posed as an alternative to the black and white, crime and punishment mentality that has too often marred our social justice system. For those who aren’t familiar with restorative justice, can you talk a bit about it and explain how you first became interested in the idea?
Restorative justice focuses on healing rather than punishing. In Oakland, it’s used both in public schools, as a way of reducing suspensions, and in some criminal cases, to allow juveniles who complete the process to avoid criminal prosecution. For restorative justice to work, both the offender and the victim have to be willing to participate. The details of the process vary depending on the circumstance, but generally, the offender hears from the victim about the impacts of their crime and agrees to take measurable steps to repair the harm they’ve caused and rejoin the community with a clean slate.
I became interested in restorative justice after hearing about it from local advocates. It seemed to me that it offered a pragmatic path to reducing crime and its impacts—by focusing on fixing what’s been damaged and preventing something similar from happening again. Incarcerating people is extremely expensive, and as a criminal justice reporter I know that it does a terrible job of preventing crime: 77 percent of people released from state prisons are arrested again within five years. Initial studies indicate that restorative justice significantly reduces recidivism for juvenile offenders and yields higher satisfaction and fewer trauma symptoms for victims. So while restorative justice didn’t end up being used in Richard and Sasha’s case, I did want to show what it looked like. To me, it’s a compelling example of what can happen when you step away from either/or narratives and look for solutions that make things better for everyone.
Your book was so compelling, I found myself pulling back, reminding myself, this is not just entertainment, this is a true story, these are real people’s lives. As an author, how do you negotiate that line between honoring someone’s story and presenting it in a way that will be entertaining enough to keep readers engaged?
My goal wasn’t to be entertaining as much as involving—for readers to feel connected to the two protagonists’ stories, to walk in their shoes and to care what happened to them. My hope is that if you care about Richard, maybe you’ll also care about the 54,000 kids who are held in U.S. correctional facilities on any given day. And if you care about Sasha, maybe you’ll also care about the other 150,000 American kids who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth.
Beyond the protagonists, who are both captivating, there are so many intriguing people in The 57 Bus. Was there anyone in particular you wish you could have devoted more time to?
Kaprice Wilson certainly merits her own book—her life and her stories are fascinating. And I would have loved to spend more time with Dan Gale, the hero who puts out the fire. I was intrigued by how much he felt his own story was changed by that moment of heroism.
What are you working on next?
I’m not very good at sticking to one genre, so at the moment I’m trying to finish a middle grade fantasy novel and a collection of short stories for adults, as well as continuing to work as a magazine journalist covering issues related to criminal justice, poverty, education and the environment. Plus a few picture books.
Can you suggest some further reading for teens who want to learn more about issues of race and social justice or restorative justice?We are experiencing a flowering of wonderful and illuminating novels about race and justice—Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin and Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, to name just three. But I also want to mention a few nonfiction titles. Juveniles In Justice and the follow-up, Girls In Justice, by photographer Richard Ross, document the daily experiences of kids in the juvenile system using photographs and interviews. Racial Profiling: Everyday Inequality by Alison Marie Behnke offers clear, evidence-based explanations of flashpoint topics like inequality, Islamaphobia and incarceration. Queer, There, and Everywhere tells the stories of 23 notable LGBTQ+ folks throughout history, giving readers a sense of the breadth of gender expression over time. And while not written expressly for teens, The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr is a good introduction to the topic of restorative justice. Finally, this is a beautiful article about the Restorative Justice process that appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The 57 Bus.