The 57 Bus author Dashka Slater visits Portage for Communiteen Read

On March 14 and 15, The 57 Bus author and journalist Dashka Slater visited Portage as part of the annual Communiteen Read. The Communiteen Read is a collaboration between Portage Public Schools, Portage District Library, and Bookbug/this is a bookstore whereby a selection committee decides on a book that students and community members can read and discuss together. This year, the events included a presentation to PN and PC students, a live stream to all eight elementary schools, and a community presentation on Tuesday night. 

Slater introduces students to Sasha and who they were as a person. Photo by Jaclyn Brubaker.

The 57 Bus, the winner of the Stonewall Book Award and a finalist for YALSA nonfiction finalist, is a true story based on a crime that took place in 2013. When Richard, an African American teen growing up in a lower income household, lit the skirt of Sasha, an agender teen close to graduating from a private high school, on fire. Sasha ended up with second and third degree burns and Richard was charged as an adult even though he was 16 years old at the time. “As a journalist, [Slater] uses details from news reports, interviews, and social media to paint a complex, well-developed picture of both characters,” said Lisa Miller, who was part of the selection committee for this year’s book. “We had already decided that we’d like to focus on a non-fiction book, if possible, so The 57 Bus just fit what we were looking for.”

At the time of the incident, Slater was working for the New York Times as a criminal justice investigative reporter. She was used to writing long form articles, but usually for periods of two months. When she had spent that amount of time on this particular story, however, she wasn’t ready to move on. “57 Bus was the first story that, when I finished, when I covered it for it was 14 months of reporting for the New York Times magazine, and when that story came out, I was like I’m not done,” she explained at a small lunch meeting with members of the Northern Light news staff and Gender and Sexuality Alliance. “The 57 Bus takes place in my town, in Oakland, and so I had a real chance to see how it affected the whole community and a lot of the reason that I kept on feeling like I have more questions is because there was some aspect of where it was landing in the community that I wanted to follow.” 

At the presentation that followed the luncheon, Slater shared her process of writing the book, as well as exploring the theme of restorative justice. She invited students to define justice at the beginning and end of the presentation, sharing that even though Sasha’s story is told first in the book, it was originally Richard’s story that drew her in. “The first part was really intriguing. The definition of justice is so broad and different for everyone,” said sophomore Alanna Harris. 

Slater concluded her visit with the exciting announcement that she is releasing a new book next year. The book will be called Accountable and, in a similar vein to The 57 Bus, will be a narrative nonfiction novel. Accountable will follow the true story of a racist social media account created at another large public high school. “Like The 57 Bus, it follows people on all sides of the story; people who were involved in the account, people who were targeted by the account, people who were bystanders, all the different aspects of the story,” said Slater. 

Communiteen Reads can connect students at Northern both to each other and the larger community. “I loved the past communiteen reads, this one was kind of my favorite because I guess I can relate to it a little bit more than some of the others,” shared senior Ashley Miral. “Books have a way of opening up conversations and doors that people don’t think about and I love [that] this book was brave enough and was able to pass out through our school. It’s a really good thing for our school, I think.”