Lost for Life: Juvenile Murder

Posted: September 15, 2014 in Resources

In the United States, more than 2,500 individuals are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger. A powerful new documentary, “Lost for Life,” tells the stories of these individuals, their families and the families of the victims. The film is the result of writer-director-producer Joshua Rofé’s intensive efforts over four years.

“Lost for Life” — an official selection of five major U.S. Film Festivals, a ratings powerhouse for the BBC in the U.K., and a title coming to television in 57 countries (including Lifetime Movie Network in the U.S.) — will be available in the U.S. on iTunes.  Produced by Ted Leonsis, Rick Allen, Mark Jonathan Harris, Peter Landesman and executive producers Scott Budnick and Ari Silber, “Lost for Life” highlights four stories of homicide and the resulting life sentences for the teenage offenders.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Harris, who claimed Oscars for “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” and “The Redwoods,” collaborated with Rofé as a mentor on the project. In fact, the two worked so well together, they are now in production on their next documentary, “Swift Current,” about the impact of sexual abuse.

“I would not have ended up with the film we ended up with if not for Mark pretty much showing me how to be a director,” Rofé told Indiewire.

I loved this film.




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.

PaccButler Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundPacc 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.allcaughtup Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Underground

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 hashighprice1 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Underground 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.

TransformingPainToPower BookJacket 198x300 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundDaniel 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 andknockknock Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Undergroundtools 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.

NewCovers 300x154 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundSpeaking of covers, (which I always am) I am dismayed, well actually, horrified—that Simone Elkeles’s “Perfect Chemistry: series () covers Perfect Chemistry FINAL cover Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Undergroundhave 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.

By Mark Flowers

Reading the titles of the books under review–a book about football, and a book about juvenile prisons–a lot of people would not immediately think that they are related, or that either has much to do with race in America. But both authors make persuasive cases that racism, specifically against young Black men is at the heart of their subject.

The more obvious case is that of juvenile prison. Nell Bernstein outlines the case in her introduction:

Juvenile incarceration is also one of the most glaring examples of racism injustice our nation has to offer. Studies based on confidential interviews have found that the vast majority of Americans go through a period of delinquency at some point during adolescence. Fully 80 to 90 percent of American teenagers have committed an illegal act that could qualify them for time behind bars, and one-third of all teens have committed a serious crime. Most, however, never see the inside of a cell, or even a police car. Of this group–the kids who get a pass–the overwhelming majority simply grow out of it. But the time they reach adulthood they are crime-free.

Black and brown youth, especially those from impoverished communities, face far different prospects than do their white counterparts on this front. Those living in poor neighborhoods are subject to what sociologist Victor Rios calls a “culture of control”–treated with suspicion and harsh discipline at school, on the street, and even in the community. They also face discrimination at every stop on the juvenile and criminal justice circuits. They are more likely than white youth who commit identical acts to be arrested; to be charged and detained rather than released to their families; to be sentenced to locked institutions; to be kept behind bars longer; and to be sent back more often. . . . These cascading inequities dramatically curtail the prospects of young people who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to educational and employment opportunities that serve as the bridge to secure and successful adulthood. (pp. 8-9)

Visiting some of these poor neighborhoods that Bernstein is describing, Steve Almond, author of Against Football, makes some very similar comments:

Their teachers saw them mostly as discipline problems. They had no positive male figures in their lives, no power in the world, no idea how to acquire any. So I could understand why they were desperate to join a game that gave them a sense of purpose and direction, that earned them the approval and guidance of respected elders . . . a game that offered them a chance at riches and fame, however remote. They accepted the need to sacrifice. They had to learn strategy, cooperation, how to channel their aggressive impulses, how to evade or defeat the opponent. They understood that the game in question gave people tremendous pleasure, but that it wasn’t economically productive for the local community. And though they preferred not to think about this part, they knew that it came with considerable risks to their health.
Despite all this, some of them still wanted to sell crack cocaine.
Am I now suggesting that football is as bad for the African-American community as crack cocaine?
I’m just making the point that neither is a realistic solution to the crises that poor African-American boys face growing up in this country. In fact, they are distractions from the systemic inequalities that keep such boys locked in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. (ARC, pp 105-106)

In comparing football players to drug dealers, Almond’s point is that football is among the very few limited options available to black youth. And it is not one without consequences. He spends much of the first half of his book detailing the new medical knowledge we have about the damage concussions and sub-concussive hits have on the brain, especially young brains. What’s more, as a form of entertainment, he indicts football fans for becoming complicit in its cult of violence, and (perhaps) for participating in another kind of racism:
Yes, football attracts fans of all races and classes. Yes, players choose to compete and are well paid. But the power dynamics remain eerily familiar: a wealthy white “owner” presides over a group of African-American laborers.
. . .
Does football provide white Americans a continued sense of dominion over African American men? Do their huge salaries give us the right to pass judgment on them incessantly? To call up radio programs and yell about how they’re lazy or money-hungry or thuggish? Do we secretly believe they belong to us?
. . .
What does it mean that 95 percent of our most famous African American citizens are athletes? Or that, when we see a physically imposing African American in the lobby of a fancy hotel . . . we immediately think: football player.
I’m going to get hammered for asking these questions. Fine. Hammer away. But don’t pretend that’s the same as answering. (pp 112-113)

That last sentence is perhaps the most important one in Almond’s book. Throughout the book, he makes provocative claims, not just about racism, but about violence, money, and more, and it is easy for a fan to brush aside his arguments. But brushing them aside, or even acknowledging them, without actually grappling with them, is different from proving him wrong. And that’s a lot harder to do.

Bernstein is similarly provocative in her book. And, like Almond, has much more to discuss than race. Her chapters on the origins of the juvenile prison comprise one of the most fascinating pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. And her ultimate goal is similar to Almond’s: abolition. Just as Almond is essentially calling for an end to football, Bernstein is calling for an end to juvenile prison. Neither one of these calls is likely to be heard, and one of the strongest reasons is laid out in the books themselves: the amount of money invested in these two enterprises. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think long and hard about the options our society appears to have set up for young Black men and what we do to participate in these institutions.

burning-down-the-house* BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. 319p. Free Press. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569. LC 2013043709.
Bernstein outlines the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. The author takes a look at solitary confinement practices, “therapeutic prisons,” and juvenile reentry. Using solid teen developmental theory and research, United Nations findings, and trauma informed care, this title articulately sets forth the argument against the imprisonment of children. A passionate advocate for young people, Bernstein highlights teen voices and experiences throughout the book, adding humanity and insight to the statistics. Burning Down the House does for young people what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010) did for adults: brings this issue to national attention. Readers meet influential adults such as Jerome Miller, who closed down the entire system in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, and Gladys Carrion, Chief Commissioner of New York, who not only closed down 18 state facilities by 2012 and halved the number of incarcerated kids, but also diverted $74 million to support community-based alternatives to incarceration. Teens interested in history, social sciences, and one of the biggest issues facing young adults in the U.S. will find lots to love in this book.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

ALMOND, Steve. Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. 160p. Melville. Aug. 2014. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9781612194158.steve-almond-against-football-210x300
Alex Award-winner Almond delivers a provocative if slightly uneven book. As the subtitle suggests, the author is a longtime devoted football fan, and he spends much of the first quarter of the book solidifying his football bona fides before beginning his onslaught of reasons that he feels he can no longer watch his favorite game. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the sport, in particular the NFL, will find little in the way of new arguments here—Almond spends chapters on concussions and sub-concussive hits; the game’s twisted monetary incentives, especially in college football; its cult of violence; racism; and its vexed relationship with the American institutions of capitalism and patriotism. But the sheer weight of the evidence Almond marshals is impressive and hard to ignore. Even when his arguments against the game seem strained, he is able to put the burden of proof squarely back on readers to disprove him with more than a simple dismissal. Particularly strong is his complete demolition of the argument that the mere popularity and fixity of the game in the nation’s consciousness somehow puts it above criticism. Many fans of football will react to this book with derision, and many non-fans will consider his points self-evident: both are wrong. These are arguments that deserve to be considered deeply and grappled with, and teens—who have not yet devoted their lives or opinions to or against the sport—are in a perfect position to take Almond’s manifesto seriously.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA


Originally published in School Library Journal on June 18, 2014

When I give guests a tour of my library one of the first things they notice is the way it is organized—the entire library is geared toward people of color. Because that is who is in here.

I always say, and make very clear, this is because of disproportionate minority confinement. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s another (easier for some people to hear?) word for racism. Youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every point of contact with the juvenile justice system—and this disproportionate minority contact is disturbingly persistent over time. Youth of color are more likely to be incarcerated and to serve more time than white youth, even when they are charged with the same category of offense.

But back to the library: I have the popular African American fiction section, a Latino section, biography, horror and sci-fi section—all of these feature books as much as possible by, for, and about people of color. The collection is labeled with 21 different genre stickers to help readers identify titles of interest. Toni Morrison is not in the popular African American section, she is in the classics section, because my library assumes that people of color want to see themselves in all genres. The smallest section in my library is the Hispanic/Latino section. I even have to put the fiction and the nonfiction together, it is so small. Where are all the Hispanic, Latino, and Latin American authors with the stories my kids want to read?

I have a catch-all section, which is actually where most of the white authors’ books live. John Green’s titles are there, although none of my patrons really read them. Before The Fault in Our Stars movie was released, I had never had a request for the book. I have Ellen Hopkins, and April Henry, and some action-packed series which my kids are loving. The most popular right now are T. M. Goeglein’s heart-pounding Mafia action-adventure Embers & Ash  (Penguin, 2014); Emmy Laybourne’s disaster-packed survivor story Savage Drift (Feiwel & Friends, 2014); Trevor Shane’s Children of the Uprising (NAL, 2013), and Lex Thomas’s next entry in the war and intrigue “Quarantine” series, The Burnouts (Egmont USA, 2014). I also include titles such as Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner in this section. In my institution, it is critical that I understand the worldview of my teens, and how they approach YA lit, however unusual it may seem to youth librarians serving those in outside populations.

To add diversity to your collection, or build one that considers your community’s demographics, consider the following titles that you may have missed.

 A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundFew people are aware of what really goes on inside juvenile prisons, even though the U.S. incarcerates more youth than any other nation in the world. Incarcerated youth may be unable to see the big picture. Burning Down the House by Nell Bernstein changes all that. It does for children what the Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012) has done for adults. It’s a must read for anyone interested in crime and justice and definitely needs to be on library shelves. A passionate advocate for children, Bernstein highlights teen’s voices and experiences throughout the book, which adds humanity and insight to the statistics. There are a few teens in my institution and a lot more on the outside who will be willing to tackle this book because of the subject matter. Watch for a full review to come at Adult Books for Teens.

 A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundLibrarian and author Patrick Jones is writing a lot of books that fill a gap. The Bridge tells the story of a young man who is the only English speaker in a family of undocumented immigrants. This has serious consequences when his father has a heart attack and is misdiagnosed. José is on the straight and narrow, working two jobs and trying to succeed in school through all of his responsibilities.

Illegal A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundI met N. at BEA, signing copies of his memoir, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, and read it on the plane on the way home. N. crossed the border when he was a teen, graduated with a master’s degree, and held a high paying job. This isn’t so much a feel-good story of rags to riches as it is an exploration of the territory of living underground, in fear of being found out as “illegal.” Without legal ID, he is constantly on edge, fearing traffic stops, going into a bar and getting carded, getting on a plane, traveling; he waits for the other shoe to drop and his irregular social security card to be found out. Sophisticated teens will enjoy this title. (Full review to come in Adult Books for Teens blog).

 A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundLowriders in Space, the forthcoming graphic novel from Chronicle books is terrific. Lupe Impala, lowrider chick and mechanic extraordinaire and her sidekicks El Chavo FlapJack and Elirio Malaria customize a car to enter the Universal Car Competition in hopes of winning so they can open their own shop. Seeking car parts they end up in the abandoned airplane factory which leads them into the stratosphere for detailing. Says Chavo “I don’t think we’re in the barrio anymore!” They pick up a few rings from Saturn, snag the Pleiades for their wheel and some pom-pom asteroids. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s totally cool cars and there will be a sequel!

 A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundRobert’s Black Sheep will end up in my popular African American section. It starts out strong with a great cover. Bad boy and wannabe rapper Dwayne is on the streets with his boys, but then meets posh girl Misha. A quarter of the way through the pacing slows down and gets a preachy. I kept reading because there is a lot of  diversity—Misha’s father is Rastafarian, and the leader of Dwayne’s gang drops out to be Muslim. Dwayne himself converts. He struggles to turn his life around while hiding his darker side from Misha. The action picks up towards the end when one night the two sides of Dwayne’s life collide. Fans of Sister Souljah (who works in a Muslim theme in her later books) might like this one, despite the uneven pacing.

 A Collection Built Around Its Community—Incarcerated Teens | YA UndergroundPlease add Coe Booth’s new middle school book Kinda Like Brothers to your lists of possible Newbery contenders. This title could go on to win both the Coretta Scott King and the Newbery. Brilliantly written, every single character has a story, and readers will feel as if they know them, and will want to get know even more about them. Booth writes truths about boys’ relationships with each other that are real in all of their complexities. This title also shows relationships between African American boys and men in a big and profound way.

BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: the End of Youth Prison. New Press. Jun. 2014. 319p. Tr $26.95. 9781595589569.

BOOTH, Coe. Kinda Like Brothers. Scholastic. Aug. 2014 256p.Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545224963.

CAMPER, Cathy. Lowriders in Space. Bk. 1. illus. by Raul the ThirdChronicle. Nov. 2014. 107p. Tr $22.99. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781452128696.

JONES, Patrick. Bridge. (The Alternative). Darby Creek/Lerner. 2014. 86p. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781467744829.

N., José Ángel. Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant. Univ. of Illinois Pr. 2014. 115p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780252079863.

ROBERT, Na’ima B. Black Sheep. Frances Lincoln. 2014. 272p. pap. $8.99. ISBN 9781847802354.


Jarrett’s mom takes in foster care babies. And NOW, she’s taking in Kevon, baby Treasure’s older brother, and so Jarrett has to share his room with him. Totally unfair.


Coe Booth’s new book  is about the relationship between two middle school kids. She writes truths about boys relationships with each other that are real in all of their complexities. AND this book is showing relationships between African American boys and men in a big, big profound way.

Every single character in this book has a story, and just enough is written about each one to have us feel we know them and want to know more about them.


This book is a classic. Newbury!!!!!! Brilliant. I am in awe. I am a reluctant reader of middle school boy books and she had me turning the pages. Complex. Real. Funny. Not one thing that doesn’t work. Shout out!

By Amy Cheney

  • Discard ALL old, funky, boring, non-kid-friendly books in the facility. Old, funky, irrelevant books are a turn-off.  It is better to have no books at all than old and funky ones. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the first thing you need to do.
  • Talk with your administration about the importance of free and independent reading, and gain their support for creating a library of shared books.
  • Reach out to your local public library and partner with them on selecting and obtaining books, programming, librarian visits, grant writing, and book talking.
  • Partner with local bookstores: create a wish list for donors to buy books for your library. Bring in appropriate authors who visit bookstores.
  • Partner with local organizations to hold book drives on specific titles you want.  I partnered with the Girl Scouts for specific book requests and got all the Harry Potter, Wimpy Kid, James Patterson Maximum Ride, Rick Riordan, Goosebumps and many other basic kid-friendly items on the shelves.
  • Connect with Library Services for Youth in Custody (LSYC) and find out what people are doing across the country in providing library services.
  • Connect with Yalsa-lockdown  http://lists.ala.org/wws/info/yalsa-lockdown for questions about books and other issues.
  • Provide an abundance of books that kids can check out and bring back when they are done.
  • Create a stress-free honor system for lending books and materials.
  • Hire a consultant to assist you with selection development policies, purchasing books for 40% off, setting up your program and finding the best book choices for your facility. Image

On Book Selection 

Posted: May 24, 2014 in Resources

By Amy Cheney

images-1How do we select books?  Most libraries have a selection policy in line with the values and goals of probation and school administration.  Ideally, every book on your shelf reflects those values.

Librarians consider many factors when choosing books.  Primarily, what will  be relevant, attract and hold the interest of our youth, especially the ones that are reluctant or non-readers. We read the books. We talk to other librarians who read the books. We talk to teens and get their feedback. Often the book must have a catchy or edgy title, premise or cover.  Beyond that, the book needs to have lots of action, big type and white space.

We know most of our kids come in without certain assets—often without literacy, without cognitive skills, without support.  We know they have often had negative experiences with school.  We know they have had experiences they were unable to cope with, that they are emotionally raw, that they are shut down and troubled.  And yet, on the other hand, we know that they have a tremendous amount of other assets: entrepreneurial skills, off-the-charts resourcefulness, astonishing creativity, a great sense of humor, insight and smarts, and the ability to make the best of dire situations. The books we choose need to reflect all of this.

Some of the top books for youth in detention are written by award winning inner city school teachers, social workers, and librarians. Here are some of top picks currently in my institution:

Tyrell and Bronxwood by Coe Booth

Caged Warrior, Homeboyz, Hip Hop High School and the Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez (and other young adult titles) by Alan Lawerence Sitomar http://www.alanlawrencesitomer.com

Street Pharm, Snitch, Takedown and coming out in December On the Edge by Allison Van Diepen

Ten Mile River and Stay With Me by Paul Griffin

Black and White, Rooftop, Final Four,  Riker’s High, Rucker Park SetUp by Paul Volponi

All of the Bluford High series. There’s something comforting about reading books in a series set in a neighborhood with familiar characters and situations. http://www.townsendpress.com/our-books/bluford-series/

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah


By Jennifer Sweeney and Amy Cheney

Youth in institutions across the country often have negative past experiences with books and reading, which in turn influence their literacy skill level. While there are many causes and reasons for this negative past experience, librarians (and others) can and do turn this experience around by matching a kid to the perfect book for them. Do you remember that perfect book for you? Maybe it was when you were a preschooler, teen or even an adult. In general, once someone has that positive experience, a real transformation occurs around reading and literacy.

I myself  (Amy) have been privilege to this life changing moment for thousands of youth, watching them blossom into excited readers and participants in the world of books and reading.

If that were ALL librarians did for youth, it’d be enough.  But there is more. Libraries do tremendous things for the youth in our facilities.  Not only are there books to read, but computers, ipads, and resources.  Kids can listen to music, play games, get a book on tape, enroll into and get started on college coursework, register to vote, send birthday cards to family members, or meet a famous author, musician, or hero in person.  (If this doesn’t sound like your library, please call us, we can help.)  We have kids learning many new things when they walk through our doors: Russian. Career options. How to draw. A new or different perspective. A sense of themselves as a reader or someone who is good at or likes to read. The library is the place where youth can participate democratically in the world of readers and writers.

With the estimated reading level of incarcerated youth averaging around 5th grade, what we want, of course, is to get them reading and increase their literacy skills. We understand the power of reading and the power of the ideas that we provide access to.  However, the most important thing about libraries is they provide a fundamental and profound  experience for incarcerated youth: Free Choice.

  The key to increasing literacy is to provide a place where kids are free to choose what they want to read. Free and voluntary choice of reading material has been proven to increase literacy, and is cited by some as THE most important way to improve literacy.* If our collections are full of books that express the range of problems and struggles and hopes that are so central to our kids’ lives, our kids will read.  If our kids know we respect their right to choose, and respect their choices, they will read.  If they have a choice, they can also choose not to read a book that isn’t right for them – whether it’s too scary, too depressing, or any other thing that doesn’t serve their needs. We see it happen every day.

Sometimes kids just need to escape their problems for a while; the library is a safe place where a kid can get away in a comic book or a funny story.  We know our kids are curious, and they want books that enable them to discover and explore different worlds.  Our kids are growing up too, and they need to learn about themselves, their minds, and their bodies.

They need to understand their lives, and connect with stories that validate their experiences.  The library is a place where our kids can safely connect with others who have experienced the violence they have experienced, gotten hooked on drugs like they have, and have struggled to find answers.  The library is where kids can learn how to change their lives, by experiencing the lives of other people who have been in similar situations and found ways to overcome similar problems.

We know that our kids need to learn how to care about each other, their surroundings, and property.  The library is the community space where we demonstrate respect for books and responsibility for their care, all within the context of free choice. While we spend time talking about respecting books  —  the importance of taking care of the books because of their life-changing power for all of us — we stress the honor system.  Books, reading, and the entire library experience need to be free from anything punitive, to allow youth to choose how they interact with the library.

The conversations we have with our kids about what they are reading reinforce the message too, as do the authors and speakers we bring in to talk to our kids.  The power of meeting and talking to real people who have struggled, survived, and written about it is extraordinary.  We have seen firsthand the change in our kids as they realize they are not alone and that their lives have value.  That there is hope.

We provide the guidance and setting for safe space for meaningful conversations about their thoughts, opinions and reactions to  what they are reading, and their motivation to challenge themselves to move out of comfort zones both literal and figurative.  As librarians, we see firsthand the positive effect free choice has, on the kids’ motivation and excitement to read, and thus their concrete and active choice to change their lives.

The library is where our kids can choose to take that step to succeed. This is our central goal, as librarians: to provide a place for our kids to choose. To read what they want to, to find their interests, to take independent and freely chosen steps.  As librarians, our job is to provide the space for this to happen.

This is the relevance of the library in our facilities.



Jennifer Sweeney, MSLS, PhD teaches in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA and in the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University.  Dr. Sweeney was the 2010 recipient of the American LIbrary Association Diversity Research Grant investigating the nature and scope of juvenile detention library services in a national survey.  Her book, Literacy: A Way Our For At-Risk Youth, portrays in detail the unique issues and challenges in juvenile detention library services and recommends library services tailored to helping teens improve decision making and cognitive skills.   Earlier, she held research positions with the University of California, Davis and UCLA.  She currently provides program evaluation and planning services to libraries and nonprofits.

* Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

In a study comparing reading comprehension for students in free reading programs against students in traditional reading programs, 94 percent of the students in FVR did as well as or better than those in traditional programs. (p.3)

Boys in a free reading program in a reform school for one year increased reading comprehension scores on the SAT 18% while a control group increased scores only 8%. (p. 4)

“In-school free reading studies and “out of school” self-reported free voluntary reading studies show that more reading results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, and grammatical development.” p. 17

Numerous studies show that students prefer free reading to traditional language arts activities.  p. 30

Children who engage in self-selected reading  say they enjoy reading more than students whose books are assigned to them. p.33


Shards: Book Review

Posted: May 21, 2014 in Book Reviews
Tags: ,

MOORE, Allison with Nancy Woodruff. Shards: A Young Vice Cop Investigates Her Darkest Case of Meth Addiction–Her Own. 288p. Touchstone. Apr. 2014. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781451696356. LC 2013026028.

shards 193x300 Two Books That Probe the Darkness BeneathIt’s not often that cops write memoirs about their own descent into corruption: Shards is a terrific book to fill the void. Moore opens with her plan to kill the man she calls “the dealer” and then herself. Living in hell, she was desperate to escape. She describes the personal integrity that led to her rise as a hardworking vice cop in Maui, followed by her brutal descent into meth addiction.  Her memoir details the extreme manipulations of an addict and the painful reality of betraying oneself and others.  In order to leave Maui to score and use drugs, she told the married cop she was having an affair with that her grandmother died, and then her mother. To explain how sick she looked, she deceived her fellow officers and her family into believing she had cancer. Her fellow officers took up the cause, donating sick leave and hosting fundraisers for her “treatment.”  Meanwhile, Moore was living with an abusive drug dealer in Seattle, held prisoner, raped, and tortured, completely in the grips of addiction. Ultimately she escaped and was then faced with 25 felony charges. Tightly written, the narrative is pulse pounding and relentless. Moore comes across as sympathetic primarily because of her truthful account and because she takes responsibility for the trust and relationships she destroyed.  Teens who like gritty biographies, particularly fans of  Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star (MTV Books, 2008), will enjoy this one.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

Neri pic2 600x446 How Author G. Neri and Librarian Kimberly DeFusco Changed a Life

G. Neri, author of Chess Rumble (Lee & Low, 2007), and Kimberly DeFusco, a Tampa school librarian, helped turn Raequon P., a young at-risk non-reader, into a Shakespeare-loving poet. (As told by the author, the librarian, and the poet.)

G. Neri: In 2009, Kim DeFusco, the media specialist at Young Middle Magnet school here in Tampa, invited me to come to her school to give a talk. She told me about one particular student, Raequon, who loved my first book Chess Rumble, a free-verse graphic novella about a troubled boy whose life is turned around by the game of chess. Raequon was dying to meet me. But like many kids in his situation, come the day of my visit, he was not to be found.

“He’s been suspended,” Kim said, as if it were a common occurrence with him. It was. She was such a believer in this kid, though, that she kept sending me updates about him because my books seemed to be having such an impact on his life.

I’ve been lucky to hear stories like this from librarians and teachers all over the country. Many times, I’ve even seen first-hand my books help turn non-readers into readers. Literally. I’ve seen boys in the back of the room who’ve never read a book in their lives pick up one of mine (usually drawn in by the bold art of Jesse Watson or Randy DuBurke), and by the end of the day, I hear from the librarian something like “Remember that disruptive kid sitting in the back? He just finished reading your book.”

That kind of reaction means a lot to me. It happened to me back when I was one of those kids in fifth grade. I was a visual person who loved to draw, but once pictures were no longer part of the books I was seeing, text became a wall I could not overcome.

chessrumblePLUS 600x402 How Author G. Neri and Librarian Kimberly DeFusco Changed a Life

That is, until my teacher put The Phantom Tollbooth (Random, 1961) in my hands and the whole idea of what a book was went out the window. It was a revelation. That teacher recognized who I was and had matched me with a book that would speak to me. That was the start of a long and powerful journey into reading and, eventually, writing.

It’s this triangle of change among author, librarian/teacher, and student that seems to affect so many young lives I’ve come across. I’ve always believed that for every non-reader out there is a book just waiting to be discovered. And often, it’s a teacher or librarian who facilitates that match-up.

For me, a book without a facilitator is just a quaint collection of words gathering dust on a shelf.  For many of the kids I meet, a book only falls into their hands because a librarian or teacher made the connection. For some kids, these books mean so much, they want to keep them. Sometimes sustenance comes in many forms. If you’re hungry, you might steal food. If you’re hungry for something that speaks to you—it might be a book you hold precious. I understand that hunger.

Among the librarians and kids I’ve met, Kim’s relationship to Raequon stood out. Here’s why.

Kimberly DeFusco: I first met Raequon in 2009 when he came into our grade six Intensive Reading Class. He was a very vocal non-reader, often a distraction to other students, and a behavioral handful. One day, I brought Raequon back to my office to talk to him about his behavior. I became agitated because he was looking at the wall and not paying any attention. I harshly asked, “Is there something up there more interesting than listening to me?”

He was looking at a picture of me posing with you during one of your visits to his school. He asked me, “Isn’t that G. Neri?”

I told him that indeed it was. He was so excited to see I had a picture taken with G. Neri that he began telling me how much he loved Chess Rumble and that he’d read it over and over throughout fifth grade. All of a sudden, it was like I was talking to a completely different Raequon. He lit up, talking about how he related to the character Marcus and how he was jealous of me for having met G. Neri.

Over the next couple years, Raequon continued to be a very vocal non-reader with his class, but would also come to the library on his own and ask for books, hiding them in his binder or bag and never bringing them out in class.

When I convinced him to read You Hear Me?: Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys, edited by Betsy Franco (Candlewick, 2000), he became obsessed with poetry books. He was constantly checking out huge poetry anthologies. I had a hard time keeping enough of them.

One day, he came to me and asked if I had anything by Shakespeare. He’d read a poem in one of the anthologies, and he liked it. I asked him which poem it was and he said something like, “I don’t know exactly, ‘cause it was hard to read, but that man really loved that woman–more than you should love someone. It was good.”

We didn’t have any Shakespeare anthologies. One of our English teachers brought in her Norton Shakespeare Anthology and gave it to him.

During the spring of his sixth grade, we were able to host you—Greg—again and Raequon was so excited to meet you. I only learned later that he’d saved his “snack” money from home for a couple weeks in order to buy a copy of Chess Rumble for you to sign. I took a picture of you guys together and he kept that in his school binder for years.

Sometime during his sixth grade year, Raequon began to write poetry. By seventh grade, he had two notebooks full before he ever told me that he was writing. He told me not to say anything, because he didn’t want anyone to know.

He said that when he was in elementary school he did well in school, but that he was bullied for being smart and skinny. He said, “Smart white kids have it easy. It’s not cool to be black and smart, and I can’t stop being black.”

He had made a conscious decision to not be “smart” in middle school so he wouldn’t be bullied. He put on this tough-guy, joker persona and started goofing off in school. He did not want anyone to know he was a poet. All during seventh grade, Raequon was a huge behavior concern with referrals in the double digits for classroom disruptions. He was going through a lot of distress in his home life and was acting out more and more at school. A few of us who saw his potential had a big challenge in advocating for him that year.

During eighth grade, Raequon had the opportunity to talk with you in person. Not long after that, he began to open up to his classmates about his writing. He shared poems with his teachers and allowed them to display them in class.

He became dedicated to getting into Blake High School’s creative writing program. He put his pain and joy on paper and was not afraid to share it with others. Raequon’s home life was often not stable, and he stopped keeping that to himself. He wrote about the struggles inside himself; trying to make decisions about what was the right path when his role models weren’t positive. He wrote about school, about love, about heartbreak, about family.

Through his writing, some of his teachers began to understand more about Raequon and had more patience with him. It was a transformation. No joke, when he showed me his high school acceptance paper, he had watery eyes. He gave me a hug and said, “They want me.” His next sentence was “Will you tell G. Neri?”

He’s gone from getting Ds and Fs to As and Bs. Of course, I know there are a lot of kids out there who struggle like Raequon. What makes me smile is that there are also lots of librarians, teachers, and authors looking out for them.

Raequon: In fifth grade, our librarian picked out a book for us and had it out on the table. I was looking at it like, Hmmm. Chess. I don’t want to read it! It’s about chess! And she was like, “Read it. You’ll like it.” So we started reading Chess Rumble, and actually, I did like it! I was like Oh…this is dope! And we had to do a report on it, and we were talking about it and talking about it, and I read it a few more times, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

So when I came [to Young Magnet Middle school] in sixth grade, I was in the library for the first time and I saw a familiar cover and I was like wait, wait wait—this can’t be the book. And I found it, and I was like Oooohhhhh! It’s the book! And I went over to Ms. DeFusco, and I told her it was my favorite book. She said something like, “Oh, yeah, I was reading it at the beach and was so into it, I forgot to turn over and it gave me a sunburn—that’s how hot this book is.”

Later on, when Greg came here to talk to us and I finally got to see him in person, I started thinking, well, if he could do it, maybe I could do it, and that’s when I started writing. It took me a long time before I showed my writing to my best friend and he was shocked, like, “Wow, are you serious?” But later he was like, “This is good.”

People are surprised when I say I write poems. They say, “You don’t look like a writer.” Well, what does a writer look like?

G. Neri: Hearing those comments from Kim and Raequon makes me realize that books can open doors, act as stepping stones toward greater understanding, offer moments of clarity. For me, it’s amazing that one librarian could take such an interest in one student, even after graduation. On the flip side, Raequon would probably be shocked to hear that he’s been an inspiration to us both. We writers hope that something we create will be meaningful for someone—inspire them, enlighten them, intrigue them, make them think. Librarians hope for the chance to make a difference through books—planting seeds that will spark an imagination, making connections that will grow into informed minds. When you hear back from teens that what you do or say actually makes a difference, believe me, it keeps us going.

G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor–winning author of Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (Lee & Low, 2010). He received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his first book, Chess Rumble. His upcoming books, Knockout Games (Lerner), a YA novel, and Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (Random), a free-verse picture book, will be out this summer.

Kimberly DeFusco is the media specialist at Young Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

Raequon P. is a creative writing student at Blake High School of the Arts in Tampa.