You may have read it in the New York Times Magazine: on Monday, November 4, 2013, Sasha Fleischman, 18, a senior at a private high school in Oakland, California, was set on fire by Richard Thomas, 16, a junior at Oakland High School, on the AC Transit 57 bus.
Dashka Slater wrote it after hearing of the horrifying crime from her neighborhood email list.
“The story took place really close to where I live,” says Slater, author of The 57 Bus, an affective, inventive adaptation for YA readers (ages 14-18). “Oakland is a big city and a small town at the same time, so it tends to be that you know everybody somehow.”
What she didn’t know yet were the details: Fleischman’s nonbinary gender identity; Thomas’ motivation for flicking his lighter at the hem of a sleeping stranger’s skirt; and whether he would be tried as an adult, facing life imprisonment, for two felonies with hate crime clauses.
“What does it mean to be agender and how should we think about a teenager who commits a bias crime?” were the motivating questions, she says. “I wanted to go see for myself if there was a story there and, at that point, I went down to the courthouse for Richard’s first court appearance and began investigating.”
Slater is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, and Mother Jones. She is the author of a novel (The Wishing Box, 2000) and several books for children (The Antlered Ship, 2017, etc.), and a recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She spent three years researching and writing The 57 Bus.
“This is a true story,” she writes in an author’s note at the beginning of the book detailing her process. Told in short propulsive chapters, The 57 Bus is an amalgam of interviews, court documents, social media posts and private exchanges, statistics—even poetry—that successfully presents its two young protagonists as complex and sympathetic.
“Other people seemed to have a file in their brain marker Gender,” Slater writes of Fleischman, who prefers the pronoun “they.” “Sasha ransacked their own brain looking for the file, but it didn’t seem to be there.”
Like them, Thomas was comfortable with friends but tended to blend in a crowd. “But if you were [Richard’s] friend, then you were family to him,” she writes. “He called you brother or sister, and he’d be loyal until the sun quit rising in the east.”
“These are teenagers, so mostly I looked at them as kids,” Slater says. “Maybe it would have been different if I wasn’t a parent of somebody very close to them in age, but I felt a lot of curiosity about who they were, how they made their decisions, and what were the things happening in their lives.
“There were times when I found Richard’s story really compelling,” she says, “and I’d find myself kind of wanting to minimize what he’d done. Then I would revisit Sasha’s story and say, ‘No, it’s possible to hold two ideas in my head at the same time, and feel really strongly that what happened to them was terrible.’ ”
For challenging easy binaries, in a starred review Kirkus calls The 57 Bus “an outstanding book that links the diversity of creed and the impact of impulsive actions to themes of tolerance and forgiveness.”
“What I hope,” Slater says, “is that kids will who are like Sasha will see themselves, kids who are Richard will see themselves, and kids who are not like either one of them will feel some connection and empathy for somebody that maybe they had written off...and start thinking more critically about either/or narratives in general.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.