How It Went Down

Book review by
Terreece Clarke, Common Sense Media
How It Went Down Book Poster Image
Haunting look at killing of unarmed African American teen.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 4 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The educational value of this novel can be summed up in two lessons: Despite people eye-witnessing an event, many different accounts can exist, each colored by whatever preconceived notions each eyewitness has; and, though so much goes into the discussions surrounding the killings of unarmed African-American men and boys, the humanity of those men and boys is often overlooked.

Positive Messages

There can be hope after tragedy, and, against all odds, something good can actually come from something senseless and tragic.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Some positive role models are very complex, including Tariq's mother, neighborhood elders, and friends. As demonstrated in his friendships and family relationships, even Tariq himself proves to be a positive influence. 


Though not gratuitous, there is a fair amount of violence, including the murder of an unarmed teenager. Both the shooting and the blood are described, as is the administering of CPR from a bystander. A man is beaten, people are threatened with knives, a man is threatened with stabbing, and a teenager roughly handles a girl and injures her. Another scene depicts a small child accidently cutting herself.


There is discussion of girls being sexy and allusions to teens having sex, though nothing beyond kissing is described. A slang term for losing virginity, "breaking cherry," is used. Teens are shown "grinding" (dancing close), and a married man is tempted to engage in an affair with a 19-year-old woman. They share a kiss, and he actively stares at her body, including her breasts and hips. A boy walks in on his father having sex with someone who's not his mother and describes hearing huffing and puffing. 


Strong language used consistently in conversation and as exclamations, including "a--hole," "f--k," "s--t," "bastard," "damn." "pissed," "ass," and "bitchy."


Some brands are mentioned, including Snickers, but only for scene-setting.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens are shown smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, and smoking cigarettes. An adult sells an underage teen cigarettes; adults drink alcohol and are described as alcoholics. Teens sell drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How It Went Down deals with many serious situations and issues, including the killing of an unarmed African American teen by a white adult, drug use among teens, gang activity, and the fallout of a media firestorm. The teen is shown being shot from several perspectives. There's frequent strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t") and some allusions to sex, though nothing beyond kissing is described. How It Went Down won a 2015 Coretta Scott King Book Award and can be used as an excellent way to begin a discussion about a topic that is consistently in the news.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byamycoko July 10, 2015

Read your own review!

Thanks to their detailed reviews, is usually spot-on. Not in this case. If you didn't read the specifics, be warned when they say it... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byCrazyPotato13 September 25, 2020


I love How It Went Down. It is a really good book. It is a good book to read if you want to learn about racisim and unfairness and how it affects black people.... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byjdwalk19 September 4, 2018

Just right

I love how this book shows all the diffirent victims and suspects , it also shows how current events in 2018 have happened in the past, I love reading books abo... Continue reading

What's the story?

Tariq went to the store for his mother and never returned home. Witnesses all have their version of what happened, but the question that haunts them long after the funeral and vigil is: What could they have done to prevent the death of an unarmed African American teen -- and which truth is the right one?

Is it any good?

HOW IT WENT DOWN is a masterwork by Kekla Magoon. The story is haunting, frustrating, and heartbreaking, just like the real-life stories of Trayvon Martin and other unarmed African American teens and men killed in shootings. Magoon shows how certainty can kill and how uncertainty can keep wounds from healing. She effectively allows readers to get to know the slain teen as others saw him, painting a picture of neither saint nor sinner but just an average kid. She weaves the lives of all the people who were affected together, drawing readers in and making them want to cry out and fix all that's going wrong in this tragic situation.

How It Went Down is an excellent book to help spur conversation about these kinds of events and encourage the development of critical-thinking skills in teens who, much too often, only get one side of the story, depending on the news outlets and spokespeople who recount it. It's heavy material, but the book is written in an easy-to-understand format that's at times more like poetry than a novel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way the killings of unarmed African American teens and men are portrayed in the media. How does the way people are portrayed affect whether justice is served? 

  • Are the biases portrayed in How It Went Down typical or atypical?

  • How can families help prevent violence in their communities? What could you do in your school, your city, or your neighborhood?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African-American books and coming-of-age stories

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