As the first African-American student in the history of Draper, a prestigious Connecticut boarding school, 16-year-old Rob Garrett has the chance to break barriers, just like his heroes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Intelligent, determined and ambitious, Rob is also eager to work hard and prove himself: I would have to fend for myself, and I was thrilled by the prospect. Accustomed to feeling constantly threatened by whites back home in segregationist Virginia, Rob is surprised to find little overt prejudice directed at him. Instead, Rob witnesses the boys’ abusive treatment of his friend Vinnie, whose New York City background, Italian heritage and severe acne make him the brunt of cruel jokes. Rob succeeds at Draper, making the honor roll his very first semester, and begins to feel safe in his new environment. When he makes a Thanksgiving trip to Harlem and encounters Malcolm X and other black activists, though, Rob begins to wonder whether he’s becoming too complacent. After he learns of his friends’ plans to stage a sit-in at Woolworth’s back home in Virginia, Rob becomes ever more eager to figure out how to combine his activist and academic desires.
New Boy is a work of fiction, but it is based on the early life of its author, Julian Houston, now a Massachusetts Superior Court Justice. Houston’s depiction of racism during the 1950s is brutally honest. The n-word is used frequently, and an attack on demonstrating college students is described in painfully vivid detail. The novel does a fine job of explaining for young readers the political and social issues that divided not only blacks and whites but even the African-American community itself. New Boy’s personal, emotional account of segregation and racism would be an excellent choice to read after studying the period in social studies or history classes. With a likeable narrator making tough decisions, New Boy is bound to elicit lively discussions. Although the ending of the novel leaves many questions unanswered, readers will be hopeful that Judge Houston will pen more novels about this promising, principled young man.