I can never have enough books in my library written by, for, and about people of color, especially those that have grown up or lived in the margins of society. There are a huge number of people of color that have important stories to tell and are self-publishing their books due to the numerous issues with the traditional publishing world which, in part, reflects the racial biases in our society. And remember—the extremely important discussion about the lack of diversity in children’s books only accounts for books published by big publishers, which skews this reality—there are actually many self- and small and alternative press published books for people of color.
Mim Eichler Rivas is a ghostwriter of bestselling books that are on all of our shelves—Antwone Fisher’sFinding Fish (), Chris Gardner’s The Pursuit of Happyness (Harper), Dwyane Wade’s A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball (Morrow), Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon (Univ. of CA Press), and my personal favorite, the one with her name on it, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse (Morrow). Her husband Victor Rivas Rivers is the spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, as well as an actor (Blood In/Blood Out, The Mask of Zorro), and has written his own book, A Private Family Matter (), detailing his abuse at the hands of a mentally ill father. My teens love these adult books, which are staples on my shelves.
I have a fantasy of having a collective of ghostwriters that would write for/with gangsters (or ex-gangsters, as the case may be). Yeah, I know it’s far-fetched: ghostwriters are already overworked, underpaid, and grossly unacknowledged for their services, and many of the self-published authors are more than happy with the independence that brings and the acknowledgement they already receive in the non-white publishing world. I can still dream. Kids in the YA Underground really want gritty, action- filled reads, and my fantasy ghostwriter could help transform some of the vitally important stories featured in today’s column into books that would fly off the shelves.
Pacc Butler’s book From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member is the top pick this week—a standout in terms of the writing, message, and the author’s ability to tell a story that is real and action-packed, while also showing the twisted thinking/behavior that was a result of the extensive abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and multiple family members. Born to a 17-year-old crack addicted mother and a 36-year-old off-the-charts violent father, Pacc left home at age 16. He joined the gang that was responsible for the murder of Yummy (Robert Sandifar), which Pacc recounts without any boasts or glorification. A dark cover with an unintentional distorted image, small typeface, and no white space are among the downsides of this self-published book.
Another standout also of interest to my teens is a new anthology by the students in POPS—Pain of the Prison System—an afterschool program in Venice, CA. Runaway Thoughts focuses on the angst of having an incarcerated family member or friend. There are a lot of self-published anthologies out there, but this one is unique due to the topics being covered. The book is being redesigned so may not be available again in print until later in the year.
What’s Wrong With You! (What You, Your Children, and Our Students Need To Know About My 15 Year Imprisonment From Age 20 to 35) is well written, follows a logical time line, and isn’t repetitive, but could use an editor in terms of focus—who is the intended audience for the book? It’s not really “scared straight” in any preachy way, thank goodness, but more of an honest accounting of the daily inanities, filth, pressures, and stresses of living in small cages with mentally ill and serious offenders. This is what “doing time” ultimately means. Author Omar Yamini was an accessory to a crime; i.e. he was present but did not actually commit the crime. It is a miracle that anyone can come out of that situation with any kind of sanity, and it’s clear that Yamini did. It’s an important book and I will continue to have it on my shelves, yet the cumbersome and confusing title reflects the lack of focus and has killed any interest in it for my sensitive and defensive teen readers who would rarely if ever pick up a book with “What is Wrong With You” as a title.
Jamila Davis’s She’s All Caught Up has a fantastic cover with a fly girl, money, and a cool car; unfortunately, it’s slow-going on the inside, covering the details of her life from a very young age, leading up to her arrest and the more gritty action-filled moments in the last 75 pages of the book. Some kids are definitely going to be interested, but others won’t hang in there that long. Davis has created the “Voices of Consequences” series for incarcerated women to tell their stories and that’s a great thing. Michelle Miles’s The High Price I Had to Pay 2, which came out of the Voices series, is nice and small, and an easy, straightforward read. At 25, she was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic drugs, an alarming sentence for a non-violent first time drug offender.
Daniel Beaty grew up in a home environment replete with addiction and incarceration. His father was a heroin addict and dealer, and was constantly in and out of prison. His older brother continued in his father’s tradition. Beaty has written two books, both of which are a must for every YA urban library even though they aren’t YA. His adult title, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential (), focuses on overcoming life’s difficulties. In it, Beaty’s personal and family stories are used as life lessons andtools for transformation. His spoken word poem “Knock, Knock” is powerful; his picture book based on the poem is more quiet. The book doesn’t address incarceration directly—the father is simply gone one day, a scenario many young men experience. Watercolor illustrations and collages by Brian Collier show the emotional journey of the young man through his losses. Both titles were produced by mainstream publishers.
Speaking of covers, (which I always am) I am dismayed, well actually, horrified—that Simone Elkeles’s “Perfect Chemistry: series () covers have been redesigned. This is truly a tragedy for our readers who love these books, and feel seen and reflected. Buy the old ones while you can. These covers are hot and sexy. This could be the death knell for reluctant readers and those in the gritty margins.
BEATY, Daniel. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me. illus. by Bryan Collier. Little, Brown, 2013. 40p. Tr $18. ISBN 9780316209175.
BEATY, Daniel. Transforming Pain to Power Unlock Your Unlimited Potential. Penguin/Berkley. 2014. 225p. Tr $19.95 ISBN 9780425267486.
BUTLER, Pacc. From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member. CreateSpace Independent Publishing. 2014. 162p. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781494771669.
DAVIS, Jamila T. She’s All Caught Up. Voices International Publications. 2013. 330p. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780985580735
MILES, Michelle. The High Price I Had to Pay 2: Sentenced to 30 Years as a Non-Violent First Time Offender. Voices International Publications. 2013. 56p. pap. $7.99. ISBN 97800991104109.
PANAGIOTAKOS, Kalliope, ed. Venice High School Students. Runaway Thoughts: The Pain of the Prison System Anthology. POPS the Club. 2014. 183p. pp. $20. ISBN 9781495113598.
YAMINI, Omar. What’s Wrong With You! What You, Your Children and our Students Need to Know about my 15 Year Imprisonment from Age 20-35. Proper Perception. 205p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780991574605.