Malcolm Hansen arrives on the scene as a bold new literary voice with his stunning debut novel. Alternating between the Deep South and New York City during the 1960s and early '70s, They Come in All Colors follows a biracial teenage boy who finds his new life in the big city disrupted by childhood memories of the summer when racial tensions in his hometown reached a tipping point.
It's 1968 when fourteen-year-old Huey Fairchild begins high school at Claremont Prep, one of New York City’s most prestigious boys’ schools. His mother had uprooted her family from their small hometown of Akersburg, Georgia, a few years earlier, leaving behind Huey’s white father and the racial unrest that ran deeper than the Chattahoochee River.
But for our sharp-tongued protagonist, forgetting the past is easier said than done. At Claremont, where the only other nonwhite person is the janitor, Huey quickly realizes that racism can lurk beneath even the nicest school uniform. After a momentary slip of his temper, Huey finds himself on academic probation and facing legal charges. With his promising school career in limbo, he begins examining his current predicament at Claremont through the lens of his childhood memories of growing up in Akersburg during the Civil Rights Movement—and the chilling moments leading up to his and his mother's flight north.
With Huey’s head-shaking antics fueling this coming-of-age narrative, the story triumphs as a tender and honest exploration of race, identity, family, and homeland.
This reading group guide for They Come in All Colors includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The year was 1964. As Freedom Riders brought protests to the quiet farming town of Akersburg, Georgia, eight-year-old Huey Fairchild’s parents assured him of his identity. He was no different from his friends, who were white. Years later, as a student at New York City’s ritzy Claremont Prep, Huey finds that he can no longer deny the truth: he’s part black. As reality for Huey becomes inescapable, so does his anger. But can he heed his estranged father’s advice—That’s the wisdom of the river, Huey. It tells us to bend when there’s no other way—or will he allow his pride to get the better of him?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of the book. What’s the effect of alternating between fifteen-year-old Huey’s current life and that of his eight-year-old self? Did learning about Huey’s past help you better understand his current actions? Did your feelings change about Huey’s attack on Zukowski upon learning why he did it?
2. Did you find the plot of They Come in All Colors relevant to today’s headlines? If so, how?
3. How does the incident that transpires between the Freedom Riders and the white townsfolk in front of the S&W reflect the sociopolitical environment of the time period? Consider its impression on young Huey, as well as on the white and black residents of Akersburg.
4. There are several moments in the story that hint at Huey’s feelings toward his mom. When he was young, he proclaimed: “Mama’s the dark one in this family. Not me. I’m normal, okay?” (p. 69) When he’s a teenager, he forbids his mom from coming within ten blocks of his school. Why is it so important for Huey that his mom blend in? How do you think this affects Mrs. Fairchild?
5. What does Toby represent for the Fairchild family? What does Toby represent for the black and white residents of Akersburg? Why do you think it was important for him that Huey be more self-aware about his race?
6. Despite their physical differences, Huey and Zukowski share a lot in common. In fact, it was their similarities that brought them together in the first place. Compare and contrast Huey and Zukowski. How did the incident at the baseball game affect their relationship?
7. At the core of They Come in All Colors are themes of identity and family. How do the events that transpire in Akersburg affect the Fairchild family—more specifically, the relationship between Huey and his father? Do you think Huey’s anger as a teenager stems from his lack of a father figure?
8. At Claremont Prep, there are people, such as Mister McGovern and Clyde (the school’s colored janitor), who remind Huey that his presence at the school is unique. Do you think these interactions affect the ways in which Huey measures success?
9. In what ways does Pea’s character evolve over the course of the book? Consider the way her role as a parent changed from Akersburg to New York City.
10. Huey’s encounters with Evan—Toby’s son—were often violent. What do you think fueled Evan’s anger toward Huey? Are there any parallels between Evan’s actions toward Huey and Huey’s actions toward Zukowski?
11. Do you think Huey’s parents did the right thing by keeping him in the dark about his biracial identity? Why or why not? How did his parents’ decision shape his transition into adulthood?
12. On page 244, Huey recounts to his parents what happened at school: he was outed by his classmates for being black. He also reveals the accusations against his father—that he was the one who circulated the story of a break-in at Mr. Abrams’s pool. Describe the significance of this scene and its effect on everything thereafter. How do the revelations impact the family’s ability to move on?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. They Come in All Colors has been compared to The Secret Life of Bees and The White Boy Shuffle. Read these titles with your book club and compare them to They Come in All Colors. Are there any similar themes? In what ways do you think these books are alike?
2. Have an open and honest conversation about race and identity with members of your book club and/or at home with your family and friends.
3. To learn more about Malcolm Hansen and read reviews of They Come in All Colors, become a fan of his Simon & Schuster author page at http://www.simonandschuster.biz/authors/Malcolm-Hansen/2134092647.
Malcolm Hansen was born at the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Adopted by two Civil Rights activists, he grew up in Morocco, Spain, Germany, and various parts of the United States. Malcolm left home as a teenager and, after two years of high school education, went to Stanford, earning a BA in philosophy. He worked for a few years in the software industry in California before setting off for what turned out to be a decade of living, working, and traveling throughout Central America, South America, and Europe. Malcolm returned to the US to complete an MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He currently lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.
“An urgent and heartrending novel about an America on the brink. With force, Malcolm Hansen writes about race, identity and the fleeting deceptions of youth.”—Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood
“This is a voice so honest and alive it feels like a stranger whispering a confession in a dark room. Malcolm Hansen's novel is a prodigious debut of a rare literary talent.”—Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day and Pym
“In They Come in All Colors, Malcolm Hanson is not writing about saints or monsters, just vivid human beings. And does so with humor and insight.” —Victor LaValle, award-winning author of The Changeling and The Ballad of Black Tom
"Emotionally acute...eye-opening and rewarding for a wide range of readers."—Library Journal (starred review)
“It's possible to imagine literary recluses J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee coming out of hiding to forge this shaggy, rakish, yet haunting account of a smart aleck's coming-of-age in harsh times.”—Kirkus
“A compelling and touching debut novel. Every scene pulls you in to Huey’s journey from child to man against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.” —Barbara Hendricks, award-winning opera singer, author and humanitarian
“Incredibly and masterfully written. For a debut, this definitely makes Malcolm Hansen an author to watch.”—SJ Lomas, author of Dream Girl
“Confident and ambitious debut novel.”—AM New York