Jason Reynolds is having a well-deserved moment. He has won many accolades for his first novel, When I Was the Greatest, including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award from the American Library Association. And his new novel, The Boy in the Black Suit, is a worthy follow-up that addresses one of life’s essential questions: How do we deal with grief?
Matt Miller is trying to navigate life without his mother. (As we learn of his mother’s death on page two, I do not consider this a spoiler.) Mr. Ray, who owns the local funeral home that held the services for Matt’s mother, offers Matt a job helping out. Though hesitant at first, Matt agrees and eventually comes to love the job. For one, Mr. Ray serves as a role model that Matt’s own father is failing to be, as Matt’s father deals with the loss of his wife in destructive ways. And Matt finds that attending the funerals of other people, which his work allows him to do with lessening levels of unease, helps him with his own grief. Matt slowly rebuilds himself and his life, with the help of his new girlfriend Lovey (yes, that’s her name), a girl with her own experiences of dealing with loss, experiences that connect to Matt’s own life in unexpected ways (see, I respect spoilers).
While reading Reynolds’ latest, I imagined it having the working title “When I Was the Saddest.” Hence the black suit, the one Matt wore to his own mother’s funeral, the one he wears to work at Mr. Ray’s, the one that symbolizes his own grief. Though Matt’s obsession with attending funerals at first seems creepy, we eventually understand along with Matt that although each experience of grief is personal, we are not alone in experiencing it. This understanding helps Matt bond with his wayward father, Lovey, and Mr. Ray.
Much as he did in When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds creates a powerful sense of place and community, and in creating nuanced adult characters like Mr. Ray, he succeeds where so many young adult novels fail. Its subject matter and themes lead to a softer story than When I Was the Greatest, but The Boy in the Black Suit is just as important and successful as Reynolds’ debut.