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.

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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.

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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.

Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin

NOTES:

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.

It’s been really gratifying to see the interest and excitement about our In the Margins List. I love that people are finding new books for their libraries and communities through the work that we have done. In the Margins is really about outreach: outreach to the small publishers and those that are self-publishing, and to communities that perhaps we haven’t connected with yet. Outreach isn’t only external, but also internal: we need to let libraries know that our communities need these types of books on our shelves, and that sometimes spelling, grammar, and editing aren’t the most important things in the universe. If someone doesn’t have the access to education or resources, a good story can still be told and valued, even with semicolons out of place.

Let’s take a look at some titles that might not be on the radar of the library community at large.

41614leftfordead Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundI’ll start with Ebony Canion’s Left for DeadThere is no doubt about it—this is one of those non-stop trauma-rama books—this story proves the point that real life is stranger than fiction. The first chapter opens with a girl fight, and ends with Ebony being run over by a car, dragged for over 200 feet, and left in a coma. How did she get there? Wow. Oh wow. Sexual abuse, rape, abandonment, drug dealing, loss, death, and more death, and through it all, a strong survivor spirit. Canion adds life lessons at the beginning of each chapter and reflects upon her life throughout, looking back at her teen years with a wiser and more adult perspective without being preachy.

Published by Life Changing books, which brought us the fave three book series Teenage BluezLeft for Dead surpasses the popularity of those books and is the hottest book in the library right now. It’s a must-have for all libraries in urban areas. Yes, there are typos and some repetitions, but it’s all minor in the scope of a great action-packed true story.

41614accused Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundYasmin Shiraz’s book Retaliation won a spot on the Top Ten Quick Pick list in 2009. Her next book for young adults, Accused, follows the life of Tashera who is now in college, still going out with Ahmed. In this book, a serial rapist is putting a drug in girls’ drinks, sexually accosting them, and setting up Ahmed, a rival, to take the fall.

While my kids will definitely read this book and I’m going to buy multiple copies, it is, unfortunately, a mixed bag. The characters are one dimensional: Brandon, the rapist is a sociopath, Tashera is a superhero detective girl, and Ahmed is the perfect football player boyfriend.

Worse than the lack of complexity of characters and the cliches (“that fateful night”) are the problematic unrealistic plot points. When Ahmed is accused of rape, he is taken to jail and named in the press as the perpetrator with little proof. He is threatened with the death penalty (some states still have the rape of a child under 12 as a death penalty offense, but most have been revoked and none have been implemented. The girls in this story are all of age). The rape victim is immediately signed for a lucrative media deal. Tashera walks easily into the  prosecutor and lawyer’s offices, talks with them and gives them information—and the case is solved in a month. These are just some of many situations that don’t ring true and made it difficult for me to enjoy the book. There are good discussion questions in the back of the book that tackle more complex issues, but with the misinformation in the narrative, it’s hard to take them seriously.

3514Hidden Girl Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundShyima Hall’s Hidden Girl, is another true story that is hard to believe, yet clearly accurate. Born in 1989 in Egypt, Hall was sold into slavery and brought to the U.S., working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Short on graphic details—after all, most of her life was drudgery—some kids will find it a little slow, but overall it’s an important addition to girls’ stories on the subject of trafficking and slavery.

 Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundOver the course of two years, over 100 oral history peer interviews were conducted of African American boys/men, ages six to 24. The result is a gorgeous book—The Griots of Oakland. Striking, full-color photographs and graphics make this volume wonderful to browse and look at. The book is specific to a time and place (Oakland, CA), yet universal in interest and information. Watch for a full review in the Adult Books 4 Teens blog soon.

41614jailhouse Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundMs. O is a teacher I’ve worked with for 12 years and who I’ve named an honorary librarian. She’s carrying Marybeth Zeman’s book Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian around for inspiration. Ms. O says, “I could identify with being in an institution and feeling powerless to make a dent in the oppressiveness of the system. But the book shows how it’s the little things, how valuable the school and library is, how valuable to have someone to talk to, to have human contact, to have an opening for conversation that allows you to take a peek into someone’s window.” Quotes at the beginning of each little vignette about Zeman’s experience or that of a child’s adds an extra layer of meaning to the text.

 Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA Underground41614knockout Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundAnother purpose of In the Margins book award is to lend legitimacy to our book choices in worlds other than our libraries. I’m excited to be blogging on the National Center for Youth in Custody  (NCYC) website, an organization aligned with best practices and the Office of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention. The library world is well aware of Alan Lawrence Sitomer and Greg Neri, two of our consistent rock stars on the YA Underground scene. New titles Caged Warrior (Sitomer) andKnockout Games (Neri) are solidly complex, interesting and accessible books from two authors that are deep in the hearts and minds of inner city youth. I expect them both to do well, and enjoyed the reads. But do educators and administrators across the country in lockdown and alternative settings (without librarians) know about these books? Hopefully if they don’t, now they will! Check out the interview with Sitomer on the  NCYC front page.

41614shards Reality That Is Stranger Than Fiction | YA UndergroundFinally, I love a good corrupted cop story (a guilty pleasure?) and Allison Moore’s Shards, outlining her descent into meth hell with an abusive and controlling drug dealer, is as good as it gets.  Full review upcoming in Adult Books 4 Teens blog.

CANION, Ebony. Left for Dead. Life Changing Books. 2014. 199 p. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9781934230596.

HALL, Shyima. Hidden Girl. S & S. 2014. 232 p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442481688.

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

NERI, Greg. Knockout Games. Carolrhoda Books. August 2014. 304p. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781467732697

SHIRAZ, Yasmin. Accused. A Retaliation Novel #2. Still Eye Rise Media, LLC.  2014. 274p. pap. $11.35. ISBN 9780971817487.

SITOMER, Alan LCaged Warrior. Disney-Hyperion. June 2014224p.  pap. $13.95. ISBN 9781423171249.

ZEMAN, Marybeth. Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time. Vinegar Hill Press. 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9781495201899.

ZUSMAN, Angela Beth, editor. The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project. Story Bridges. 2013.  pap. $14.99.  Tr $59.99. ISBN 9780988763109.

First published at: http://www.slj.com/2014/04/teens-ya/reality-that-is-stranger-than-fiction-ya-underground/

BY AMY FRIEDMAN|APRIL 7, 2014

In 1992, I began raising my new husband’s pre-teen daughters. The girls were blond and blue-eyed, slender and elegant—if occasionally awkward as they headed into their teens. They looked like any number of girls their age but one thing set them apart. Their father, Will, was serving a prison term of 13-to-life for murder.
I met Will after he had served nearly seven years at a medium-security penitentiary in Ontario, Canada. At the time, I was a newspaper columnist working on a story about prison, and Will was chairman of the inmate committee. It’s a long and complicated story—but we fell in love and eventually married.

The girls and I visited their father as often as we could, though visiting a prisoner can be gruesome—all those metal detectors, ion scanners, strip searches, endless waits in rain or cold. Visiting rooms feature lousy food, scratched tables, and filthy floors and windows (if there are any). A daunting aura of suspicion haloes you on a prison visit. In visiting rooms, crying babies and tired, anguished friends, parents, grandparents, spouses, and kids vie for space and air. Beyond the opportunity to see and hear (and sometimes touch) the one you love despite his crime, there is little inside a prison that is soothing, sane, or nourishing. But you endure all this because you want to stay connected, and you want your loved one to stay connected to the world outside.

Seven years after we were married, Will was released on parole for life. Our marriage soon dissolved under the weight of his readjustment after 14 years in prison. We parted ways, but the girls remained my beloveds.

There is so much shame and stigma attached to kids with incarcerated loved ones. From the day of their father’s arrest, people began to whisper about my stepdaughters—about what they must be like. They craved community but expended oceans of energy hiding a salient fact of their lives. Because they lived a secretive life wrapped in so much shame, the girls often were lonely, isolated, and depressed.

When I remarried in 2002, my husband, Dennis Danziger, and I often talked about how we wanted to help young people who were reeling from the effects of prison. Dennis, an English teacher in the L.A. Unified School District for more than 20 years, has known many students from all sorts of backgrounds who faced struggles like those of my girls.

One in every 28 American kids has a parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2010. When you count kids with siblings, friends, cousins, godparents, uncles, or aunts in prison, and those whose parents have done time in the past, the numbers soar.

Dennis and I searched for groups that worked with this population and discovered that, while there are many fine organizations designed to help prisoners’ families, there’s not a single school-based club in the U.S. for children with loved ones in prison or jail. We decided to start such a club at Venice High School, where Dennis teaches.

The idea was to create a community for these kids, a place for them to learn from each other (and from guest speakers), a space where they felt safe to ask questions and voice their fear, anger, sorrow, and confusion.

We held the first meeting of the club in February 2013. We had to meet at lunch “hour” (which lasts just 35 minutes) since that was the only time everyone could be there. Besides, we knew if we ate together, everyone would relax enough to begin to trust one another.

I’ll never forget the first meeting. We felt it was important that students joined the club only by choice, and so Dennis announced (almost nonchalantly) in each of his classes, “If any of you have prison in your lives, you might want to come to this new club. We’ll meet here in my room at lunch.” We had no idea how many students, if any, would show up.

That first Wednesday, when the bell rang at 1:28 p.m., 10th grader Nelvia arrived in a hand-drawn T-shirt and black eyeliner. A minute later Adrianna poked her head into the room and asked, “Is this the club for …” She stopped when she saw Nelvia. “You?” Nelvia’s brown eyes opened wider. They were speechless. Then they hugged. The girls had been friends since kindergarten, but Nelvia never knew that Adrianna’s father had been in prison since Adrianna was 3, and Adrianna didn’t know that Nelvia’s godfather went to prison when Nelvia was 5. Like my stepdaughters, the girls had learned to hide this part of their story lest they be judged. And so, over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they bonded in a whole new way.

As the girls compared notes, others drifted in. Steven, the freckled, red-headed jokester, said his father, mother, and sister had all done time—and he was damned if he was going to follow in their footsteps. Handsome Tony, the poet, said his brother had been inside for a long time but was coming home soon. After I told everyone that I had been married to a prisoner and about my stepdaughters, E’majin whispered that she had a boyfriend inside and needed someone to talk to. John, with the tattooed sleeves and the dazzling smile, said, very quietly, that his dad told him he was bound to wind up in prison like his brothers. “I won’t,” he said, and went on to write heart-stopping rap poems. Alondra wept and told us that her dad had recently been arrested, and she couldn’t believe this club existed.

For 35 minutes, we talked and hung out and ate. And somehow—despite the noise pouring in from the wild outdoor lunchroom nearby—we all knew we had landed in a place of serenity and quiet comfort.

The second week, we asked the kids to figure out what we should call ourselves. They tossed out possibilities—Fighting Prison, Being Ourselves—but when someone called out POPS (for Pain of the Prison System), we knew that was our name.

One student, Eric, was so quiet that we wondered after a couple of weeks if he was just coming for lunch. Then he told us that his dad had been in and out of prison his entire life—stock fraud, he thought, though he wasn’t sure. Eric presented a drawing he thought might be a good logo. Everyone loved it.

POPS logo

Dennis and I spent every Tuesday evening in March making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Every Wednesday at lunch, a few more kids drifted into the room. We bought them notebooks to write in. We started a website to publish their stories and artwork. We invited guest speakers. And the club grew. We are more than 65 strong now.

We never imagined the way the club would expand. We still meet once a week at Venice High, and this fall we’re expanding to a few more schools in California and Ohio. I’d love to see a POPS club in every high school, to read every one of these kids’ stories, and see their artwork and hear their songs. We’re publishing the first POPS anthology, Runaway Thoughts, in May. We’re performing our stories at Beyond Baroque, a small theater in Venice, on May 24. A few of our kids are involved with the Def Poet and mentor Daniel Beaty and will be in a documentary film about his work.

Our goal is to banish the stigma and shame. Here at Venice High, our kids wear their POPS T-shirts proudly. Alyssa’s diary entry—the one she asked us to include in the anthology—says it best:

I’m here because I know what it feels like to have friends and family in prison. I know what it feels like to have no one understand, to feel alone in a crowded place. It sucks. But now I don’t have to be alone like that.

Your Dad’s in Prison Too?

Posted: April 13, 2014 in Resources

A Club for Kids With Loved Ones in the System

In 1992, I began raising my new husband’s pre-teen daughters. The girls were blond and blue-eyed, slender and elegant—if occasionally awkward as they headed into their teens. They looked like any number of girls their age but one thing set them apart. Their father, Will, was serving a prison term of 13-to-life for murder.

I met Will after he had served nearly seven years at a medium-security penitentiary in Ontario, Canada. At the time, I was a newspaper columnist working on a story about prison, and Will was chairman of the inmate committee. It’s a long and complicated story—but we fell in love and eventually married.

The girls and I visited their father as often as we could, though visiting a prisoner can be gruesome—all those metal detectors, ion scanners, strip searches, endless waits in rain or cold. Visiting rooms feature lousy food, scratched tables, and filthy floors and windows (if there are any). A daunting aura of suspicion haloes you on a prison visit. In visiting rooms, crying babies and tired, anguished friends, parents, grandparents, spouses, and kids vie for space and air. Beyond the opportunity to see and hear (and sometimes touch) the one you love despite his crime, there is little inside a prison that is soothing, sane, or nourishing. But you endure all this because you want to stay connected, and you want your loved one to stay connected to the world outside.

Seven years after we were married, Will was released on parole for life. Our marriage soon dissolved under the weight of his readjustment after 14 years in prison. We parted ways, but the girls remained my beloveds.

There is so much shame and stigma attached to kids with incarcerated loved ones. From the day of their father’s arrest, people began to whisper about my stepdaughters—about what they must be like. They craved community but expended oceans of energy hiding a salient fact of their lives. Because they lived a secretive life wrapped in so much shame, the girls often were lonely, isolated, and depressed.

When I remarried in 2002, my husband, Dennis Danziger, and I often talked about how we wanted to help young people who were reeling from the effects of prison. Dennis, an English teacher in the L.A. Unified School District for more than 20 years, has known many students from all sorts of backgrounds who faced struggles like those of my girls.

One in every 28 American kids has a parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2010. When you count kids with siblings, friends, cousins, godparents, uncles, or aunts in prison, and those whose parents have done time in the past, the numbers soar.

Dennis and I searched for groups that worked with this population and discovered that, while there are many fine organizations designed to help prisoners’ families, there’s not a single school-based club in the U.S. for children with loved ones in prison or jail. We decided to start such a club at Venice High School, where Dennis teaches.

The idea was to create a community for these kids, a place for them to learn from each other (and from guest speakers), a space where they felt safe to ask questions and voice their fear, anger, sorrow, and confusion.

We held the first meeting of the club in February 2013. We had to meet at lunch “hour” (which lasts just 35 minutes) since that was the only time everyone could be there. Besides, we knew if we ate together, everyone would relax enough to begin to trust one another.

I’ll never forget the first meeting. We felt it was important that students joined the club only by choice, and so Dennis announced (almost nonchalantly) in each of his classes, “If any of you have prison in your lives, you might want to come to this new club. We’ll meet here in my room at lunch.” We had no idea how many students, if any, would show up.

That first Wednesday, when the bell rang at 1:28 p.m., 10th grader Nelvia arrived in a hand-drawn T-shirt and black eyeliner. A minute later Adrianna poked her head into the room and asked, “Is this the club for …” She stopped when she saw Nelvia. “You?” Nelvia’s brown eyes opened wider. They were speechless. Then they hugged. The girls had been friends since kindergarten, but Nelvia never knew that Adrianna’s father had been in prison since Adrianna was 3, and Adrianna didn’t know that Nelvia’s godfather went to prison when Nelvia was 5. Like my stepdaughters, the girls had learned to hide this part of their story lest they be judged. And so, over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they bonded in a whole new way.

As the girls compared notes, others drifted in. Steven, the freckled, red-headed jokester, said his father, mother, and sister had all done time—and he was damned if he was going to follow in their footsteps. Handsome Tony, the poet, said his brother had been inside for a long time but was coming home soon. After I told everyone that I had been married to a prisoner and about my stepdaughters, E’majin whispered that she had a boyfriend inside and needed someone to talk to. John, with the tattooed sleeves and the dazzling smile, said, very quietly, that his dad told him he was bound to wind up in prison like his brothers. “I won’t,” he said, and went on to write heart-stopping rap poems. Alondra wept and told us that her dad had recently been arrested, and she couldn’t believe this club existed.

For 35 minutes, we talked and hung out and ate. And somehow—despite the noise pouring in from the wild outdoor lunchroom nearby—we all knew we had landed in a place of serenity and quiet comfort.

The second week, we asked the kids to figure out what we should call ourselves. They tossed out possibilities—Fighting Prison, Being Ourselves—but when someone called out POPS (for Pain of the Prison System), we knew that was our name.

One student, Eric, was so quiet that we wondered after a couple of weeks if he was just coming for lunch. Then he told us that his dad had been in and out of prison his entire life—stock fraud, he thought, though he wasn’t sure. Eric presented a drawing he thought might be a good logo. Everyone loved it.

POPS logo

Dennis and I spent every Tuesday evening in March making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Every Wednesday at lunch, a few more kids drifted into the room. We bought them notebooks to write in. We started a website to publish their stories and artwork. We invited guest speakers. And the club grew. We are more than 65 strong now.

We never imagined the way the club would expand. We still meet once a week at Venice High, and this fall we’re expanding to a few more schools in California and Ohio. I’d love to see a POPS club in every high school, to read every one of these kids’ stories, and see their artwork and hear their songs. We’re publishing the first POPS anthology, Runaway Thoughts, in May. We’re performing our stories at Beyond Baroque, a small theater in Venice, on May 24. A few of our kids are involved with the Def Poet and mentor Daniel Beaty and will be in a documentary film about his work.

Our goal is to banish the stigma and shame. Here at Venice High, our kids wear their POPS T-shirts proudly. Alyssa’s diary entry—the one she asked us to include in the anthology—says it best:

I’m here because I know what it feels like to have friends and family in prison.
I know what it feels like to have no one understand, to feel alone in a crowded
place. It sucks. But now I don’t have to be alone like that.