Book Review: The Usual Suspects, by Maurice Broaddus. Published May 21, 2019, 288 pages. Recommended for ages 8-12 years or grades 3-7, Lexile measure 720L Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and will require student requests in order for purchases to be made.
“Have you ever felt deep down bone mad at the universe because it withheld information from you? Information that is, by rights, yours to have? Because at this moment I’m in that very situation. I have here, in my hands, a book. I have read this book and found it marvelous. So I am in this funny state where I’m overwhelmed with love for this wonderful book on the one hand, and engulfed in a red hot fury that more people don’t know about it on the other. I want this book, so full of wit and intelligence, raw honesty and clever plotting, to be so well known that when I say “The Usual Suspects” to a room of librarians, their first thoughts involve neither Casablanca or [sic] Keyser Soze but this work by Maurice Broaddus. This all-too-real book.”  --SLJ, October, 2019, by Betty Bird. (I feel much the same as this reviewer did. I think the title is the only reason it’s not more widely read.)

The narrator and protagonist of this story is Thelonius Mitchell, or T, a highly intelligent 7th grader shunted to the Special Ed class, along with the so-called troublemakers, because he’s often bored and pulls pranks.  He intuits that:
 “Stories are all about how they are read, not the teller’s intent. Sometimes the intent and the meaning match up, but sometimes they don’t. It’s easy to let a bad story get in you and define you. To let that version of how people see you soak in and take root, growing inside you until you find yourself becoming and acting out that story. It’s one reason I’m as suspicious of ‘teachers’ as they are of me.”  

Most of the middle grade books that address systemic racism involve guns, and/or gangs, and of course, an unjust police system. Authors such as Jason Reynolds, two of whose books have been reviewed here, address these issues with sensitivity. Maurice Broaduss has done something different, here.  He shows us, from Thelonius’ own perspective, how schools begin the institutionalization called the school-to-prison pipeline, simply from frustration, lack of training, and neglect. The teachers at Thelonius’ school label kids in their charge as ADHD, or having oppositional defiant disorder, tossing labels around without any actual diagnoses by professionals; they warehouse them in Special Ed classes where everyone is taught at the same level despite vast differences in ability--which compounds the problem--and so kids begin to absorb the labels they’ve been assigned. 

Our story does begin with a gun, found next door to the school in an adjacent park; the gun is the novel's MacGuffin. T immediately knows that everyone in the Special Ed class will be suspect, as though they were one individual.  Indeed, principal Mrs. Fitzgerald accuses them in the tone of a prosecuting attorney: “Let me make this perfectly clear, gentlemen: if someone comes forward by the end of the week, I will consider a lenient punishment. But if I find out someone in this class is the culprit and others are helping to cover it up, this entire class will be transferred to the Banesford Accelerated Academy.” There is a collective gasp. Banesford Accelerated Academy is the boogeyman teachers threaten us kids with. A charter school alternative to juvenile detention…”   In other words, Banesford--so appropriately named!--is the first real step to prison, where the privatized, for-profit prison system** makes real the 13th Amendment's exception to slavery.*

Thelonius understands his friends and enemies well--early on, he focuses on the school’s most prominent tough, a girl who gets straight As and is outwardly perfect: she is every teacher’s pet. “There was only one place to go if you want to know what’s up with anyone. One person who is always dialed in to everything. One person who’s haunting me like a bad rash. Marcel. I need to talk to the lady gangster.”  Marcel runs the school's candy sales and takes kickbacks.  The school bully is her second-in-command.  And she is utterly  untouchable.

Among the harried teachers, the sole exception is a Mr. Blackmon, who is assigned to police the Special Ed class--it’s his awful job to put students in a locked closet known as the Scream Room when directed to by the elderly woman in charge, a Mrs. Horner, who does the bare minimum as a teacher. Of her, T says, “There are days I wish I fit in better and wonder what is wrong with me. It’s like I have this voice that wants to tell me I’m broken. All right, sometimes that voice sounds like Mrs. Horner.”  Mr. Blackmon, however, has empathy for these kids; he watches Thelonious and asks questions to make him think. He knows how to defuse things. He advises T to, “..[B]e smarter than your problem. Whatever, or whoever, it is. If they’re bigger, don’t come at them direct. Outmaneuver them.” “And if they’re smarter?” “Use your weakness as a strength. And don’t let them see you coming at all.”  At recess in a basketball game with the school’s worst bully, however, and while trying to learn if the bully had the gun, T first tries to be the most important player by hogging the ball, realizes that's a no-win and then balks, failing to protect Nehemiah from a gang of four.  The whole school shames him, then, and he feels it deeply. 

The writing here is visually riveting, too.  In a battle of words with a teen girl about her brother, T's mom makes the gesture of slitting her own throat while grimly telling the girl, “Here’s my neck.”  This is in no way submission!  What she’s really saying is, “Even with my last breath I would prevail against YOU, Miss All-THAT.”  The girl backs down and goes away. (Broaduss confides in his afterword, “…[L[astly, for my wife, Sally, who still lives in a state of complete denial about the “here’s my neck” scene.”) T’s mom should have her own book!  She understands their dilemma perfectly, when: “Nehemiah yells. “They rounded us all up anyway,” I say “Guilty before proven innocent.”   His mom answers, “You’re caught in a bad place, between it being a prejudging world and you all being so proud to wear the reputation you have spent so much time and energy earning.”  

When T’s mom talks to Nehemiah’s mom or grandma, “After a few minutes on the line with them, she stared at our phone like it was an alien tongue trying to lick her.”  Nehemiah’s grandma, Broaduss writes, “…[W]ears misery for makeup and chugs bitterness for vitamins.”  Of a girl who gave birth long before her teens had ended: “That girl can’t find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.”  Great stuff.  

When T's investigation stalls, Moms advises him to read Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins books--among my all-time favorite reads and quite the surprise (!) in a book for middle grades.  And T learns from Easy: “I’ve started a list of guiding principles: think objectively and follow the evidence; think creatively and about every possibility; and never fall in love with your favorite theory.”  

T develops a stratagem, but, “My plan puts me in a bit of a moral quandary, if you will. Not that anyone could tell, I’m in the middle of what some might call a crisis of conscience. I’m trying to do better, but I’m not sure what better looks like just yet. I think of it as using my powers for good against a bad guy. I already know that I may need to work on developing new powers, but until then, I’m going with what I know.”  He will save the terrified innocent who didn’t even know how to load the bullets but who’d brought the gun in fear for his life from Marcel’s henchman, the school bully--and he will lay blame on the bully, innocent of this one thing but guilty of so much else, including having set up Nehemiah for that vicious beating on the basketball court.  

Near the end, T says, There’s a line I have to walk. I know Mrs. Fitzgerald and Mr. Blackmon. I like them. I think I even trust them. But they’re still—I don’t know—the system. I can’t trust the system to do right by us. They created the prison; we try to live by prison rules. We have to protect our own. Do right by the community. Me and Mrs. Fitzgerald lock in a chess match, but I hate the game. 

The afterword includes this blurb about the author: “A community organizer and teacher [who lives near Eagle Creek Reservoir on the northwest side of Indianapolis with his wife and two sons], Maurice Broaduss has written and edited short stories for a number of magazines as well as authoring several novels and novellas for adults. He is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Knights of Breton Court and he cowrote the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. He also writes for the Marvel Super Heroes, Leverage, and Firefly role-playing games as well as working as a consultant on Watch Dogs 2. Learn more about him at”  The author writes, “For all those times the students I worked with asked, “Mr. Broaddus, is there something of yours I can read?” and I looked them in the eye, considered my portfolio, and said “no” (because your parents would kill me), the answer is now yes. So, for the students and faculty at The Oaks Academy Middle School and the Snack’s Crossing Elementary School, thank you for the inspiration and opportunities to work for you.” 

*As of  02/15/24,  the Prison Project has provided this data at

**"Some of the most common forms of prison labor include cleaning, doing laundry, food service, working with machinery, and cutting hair...Incarcerated workers are excluded from workplace protections, including minimum wage laws, the right to unionize, and workplace safety regulations. Workers earn pennies per hour, over half of which is used to pay for room and board, court costs, and other prison maintenance fees. 70% of incarcerated people are unable to afford basic necessities with their prison wages; a $3 tube of toothpaste or $5 stick of deodorant can take days of work to afford...Incarcerated individuals are stripped of their right to refuse work. Three out of every four incarcerated individuals reported being forced to work under the threat of additional punishment, such as solitary confinement, denial of sentence reductions, or loss of visitation privileges...FNUSA has joined a growing movement to remove the punishment clause from the 13th Amendment. The punishment clause has been historically and disproportionately applied to marginalized communities.  Read more at: