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Art Beat: CommuniTeen Read on fire

thumbnail_Dashka Slater by Fernando Aguila 2.jpg
Fernando Aguila
Author Dashka Slater

Dashka Slater first heard about the November 2013 event from talk around her neighborhood. One youth had set the skirt of another youth on fire while riding a bus from school. As a journalist, she first reported on the story for New York Times, but she was drawn to investigate it further – into what turned into her book, The 57 Bus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). The book has been chosen as the CommuniTeen Read 2022 for Portage area teens and their families.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The cover of Dashka Slater's book.

“In November 4, 2013, there were two young people traveling home from school,” says Slater. “One of them was a young person named Sasha, who is agender. That is, not male, not female—they use they/them pronouns. They were on the bus reading a book for a class on Russian literature and fell asleep. They were wearing a fleece vest and a t-shirt and a gauzy white skirt. On that same bus was a 16-year-old boy named Richard. Richard was traveling home from his large public high school—Sasha went to a small, private one—with an older cousin and a friend they had run into on the bus. In the course of the 8-minute trip, these two kids overlapped in their journeys home from school. Richard set Sasha’s skirt on fire, the skirt erupted into a big ball of flame, and Sasha was very badly burned.”

Moving back and forth in chapters that describe the background and experiences of both teens, Slater resists a good buy-bad guy frame. The reader is left empathizing with both, with a better understanding of the adult and juvenile justice systems, how each fail both victim and perpetrator. It is also a story of forgiveness, as even Sasha’s family stand up for Richard to be sentenced within the juvenile system, rather than be given a life sentence as an adult. Slater writes about a process called “restorative justice,” as compared to punitive justice, and how that has proven over time to help both sides and prevent further crime.

The 57 Bus, A New York Times bestseller, was also chosen as a School Library Journal Best Books of 2017, a Washington Post Best Book of 2017, one of The New York City Public Library's Notable 50 Best Books for Teens, A Kirkus Best Book of 2017, and a Chicago Public Library's Best Book of 2017. It was also chosen as the CommuniTeen Read 2022 book by Portage Public Schools, the Portage District Library, and Bookbug & This is a bookstore.

A conversation with Dashka Slater

“We choose books that are cross-generational for our youth and adults to read together,” says Sara Brown, Portage Public Schools librarian. “The mission of the Portage Communiteen Read is to create a shared reading experience for teens, teachers, families, and community members by inviting best-selling authors to Portage. The vision of the Portage Communiteen Read is to create a strong connection between teens and the community through the shared enjoyment of reading.”

Dashka Slater will be at Portage Northern High School for a free community event on Tuesday, March 15, at 6:30 p.m. She will answer questions and invite a discussion of the book. Registration is required.

“I love community read events, where the whole community can have conversations about this book that I wrote with the idea that I wanted to spark conversations about gender and race and justice and what it means to have a just result, and forgiveness, and all these types of questions that I think are important to young people in particular but also to all of us,” Slater says.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.