92 pages 3 hours read

Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives (2017)

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives (2017) is a work of narrative nonfiction by Dashka Slater, a journalist and children’s book author. The book covers an event that happened on November 4, 2013, when two high school students were riding the same city bus and one set the other on fire.

The interaction between these two teenagers lasts just a matter of minutes, but the events that lead up to and follow the event are extraordinarily complex and provide all manner of insight into contemporary social and cultural mores.

Richard is 16, an African American youth from the “bad” side of Oakland, California. He is a troubled but well-intentioned kid trying to find a way out of the world in which he lives. Sasha is brilliant and precocious, the only child of doting parents. Sasha identifies as agender, choosing the pronouns they/their/theirs, and their progressive private high school provides a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere for them to explore their identity. But Sasha’s mother has long worried that her child may encounter some kind of violence; her worst fears come true when Sasha falls asleep on the way home from school one afternoon, their gauzy white skirt hanging over the edge of their seat.

Richard is on the bus with his cousin and a friend. They are rowdy and boisterous, and Richard is trying to shake off the feelings of a rough day and a trapped life. When his friend points to Sasha and their skirt, then hands Richard a lighter, Richard grins and takes it. He needs four tries to produce a flame; when he does, Sasha’s skirt erupts in a way Richard never expected or intended.

Sasha is hospitalized with third-degree burns and faces a long recovery process; Richard is arrested and interrogated alone, where he confesses to being “very homophobic” without clearly understanding what that word means. The courts try Richard as an adult, and Sasha becomes something of a hero for LGBTQ+ rights.

Slater spends much of the book exploring the implications and ramifications of this crime for Sasha, Richard, their families, their friends, and their communities. Through investigations into the history of juvenile justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and the backgrounds and experiences of two people who live just miles—but also worlds—apart, Slater invites the reader to consider their preconceived notions of love, hate, justice, and right and wrong. Slater interrogates and unpacks racism, economic and social inequality, the criminal justice system, and the role of the media. She is interested in not just the crime itself, but how it came to be, and how the consequences that followed unfolded.

Sasha’s road to recovery is difficult and painful, with multiple surgeries and months of follow up care. In the end, Sasha recovers from their wounds and goes on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for college, where they thrive. Richard is charged with two felonies and hate crimes and has a difficult and painful experience with the criminal justice system; with plea offers being made and then abruptly withdrawn and months of incarceration before he learns his fate. Not until June 2015 does Richard find out he will serve the rest of his sentence in the juvenile system, from which he should be released just before his 21st birthday. During his time there, he earns his high school diploma, several vocational certificates, and has a job.

The book is published before Richard is released or Sasha graduates from college, a reminder that there is no such thing as an “ending”—college graduation is a milestone, just like being returned to the free world is, but neither one of those achievements has a deeper meaning. Slater instead keeps her focus on reporting all the many ways a few minutes of interaction can change the course of so many lives.

The 57 Bus is a monument to impulsive acts influenced by peers; it is also a testament to the power of forgiveness and how true justice may be best found outside of a courtroom.

In addition to traditional reporting, Slater also quotes directly from source texts, composes poems, and presents information without context, inviting the reader to decide what it means. She occasionally addresses the reader directly, an ongoing reminder that what happened on the 57 bus that day is something that involves all of us—we are all participants in this narrative.