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.

Originally Published at National Center for Youth in Custody 

Alan, you travel around the country as a literacy specialist, specializing in assisting teachers to engage “at risk kids” with the newly heightened academic demands. You also have a new book coming out in May which I’ve read and which I LOVE. I know the 250 kids I serve in the detention facility are also going to love this book. 

Tell us about your new book, Caged Warrior. What motivated you to write it?Caged Warrior

I was providing  professional development for educators in Detroit Public Schools not too long after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Detroit’s troubled public schools “ground zero” for education in the United States. His words scorched the teachers, demoralized the students and generally devalued all the great kids and hard-working educators who were busting their butts to make a difference against immense odds in an exceptionally tough environment. Now, does Detroit have issues? Oh heck yeah! But does Philly, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, St. Louis, Los Angeles and on and on and on have many of the same issues? Of course they do.

Part of the issues do involve having books that will engage our readers.

Detroit inspired the setting for Caged Warrior. The idea of doing another gritty, pull-no-punches book has been on my mind since so many YA readers and teachers have asked me when I was going to do a follow up to one of my most popular books, Homeboyz.

Caged Warrior has a lot of elements that youth are going to be drawn to. First of all, the cover is great. Then there is a protagonist who is super tough, and who also above all else cares about his younger sister. He has a Dad who is using him and a home life that is out of control. And then there’s SPORTS!!

Being a huge sports fan, the phenomenal popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) enabled me to cook up a teenage hero who is ferocious on one hand and absolutely vulnerable on the other. I wanted to show the complexity of kids trying to fight their way out with adults trying to help them do so – while other adults were seeking to oppress the underclasses through crime, corruption, violence and drugs. We live in an America gone insane. It’s all there in Caged Warrior.

And the fight scenes are terrific, and will no-doubt about it engage our reluctant readers. 

The fight scenes took me a long time to craft because I had to make sure they were tight, they pushed the plot forward and they could hold up to the scrutiny of readers who might know a lot about the sport.

On the other hand I don’t think you need to be an MMA fan to enjoy the novel. That’s because all of my books  are character driven. It’s an underdog story about a good kid in a bad situation looking to get out… and do it in a way that leaves him with dignity and honor. Personally, I run into kids like this all the time in my world as an author/educator. Their stories need to be told.

You have worked extensively with at-risk youth, particularly teens. Tell us a little about your experiences – what you have learned in working with this population. 

I am of the greatest belief that kids are kids are kids. Some live lives plagued by guns, crime and drugs, others live lives plagued by BMW’s, parental helicoptering and yep,  drugs. All of them struggle with issues of modern day adolescence. Perhaps my own experience as a teen who raced too fast down life’s highway built up a certain empathy for these kids. Or maybe it’s my desire to be there for them in the way that I always wished someone was there for me.  Either way, hardscrabble kids and I get along. Partly because I don’t BS them, partly because I respect them, partly because I listen to them and partly because I know all of us can use a shared smile.

Also, I challenge these kids. Life give you cards, you step up and play them, I say. So many of these kids need a voice in their lives that believes in them more than they believe in themselves yet won’t take any of their nonsense, too.

Ok, but what about how to get them involved with reading???

These come from Random House but I really like them:

  • Offer reading choices
  • Refrain from being judgmental of students’ reading selections
  • Tap into students’ outside interests
  • Use shorter, high-interest books
  • Link novels to other types of reading materials, such as newspapers, magazines, and nonfiction books
  • Read aloud the first chapter of a novel to get readers hooked
  • Include a variety of genres
  • Instruct students to stop reading a book if it doesn’t interest them by the second chapter
  • Allow students to help shape a reading list for the class
  • Ask students to suggest books for you to read. Read as many of the books as possible. Let students know when you read their suggestions.

Those are good – especially stop reading if they aren’t engaged by the second chapter. Giving kids permission and choices is a huge part of the battle. And definitely, reading their suggestions and making it an equal playing field. What is the most important thing in reaching struggling and/or reluctant readers?

I think the most critical thing when it comes to reaching struggling and/or reluctant readers is awakening – or reawakening – in them the power, magic and beauty of stories.

The points above help and gives them permission to enjoy reading.

Once that fire in their belly is lit, steering kids towards “commendable literature” becomes a much more achievable task. In our mad rush for test scores, test scores, test scores we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees in terms of what the value of a great book can mean to the life of a young person.

The need for stories is woven into our soul’s DNA much in the same way that the need for water is woven into our physical body’s DNA. Stories hold transformative power. They can inspire, guide, instruct, warn and delight all at the same time. (And much, much more, too.)

Kids who struggle to read and kids who are reluctant to read are often suffering, I believe, from the lack of a special someone who deals in books, a person who knows how to make just the right match between just the right kid and just the right text. Once those matches are made, kids will read.

Of course, we have an assault being launched. Librarians are cut, teachers are slashed, people who peddle in the literary arts are diminished and kicked to curb (of informational text?). Yet despite all this, kids are still eager for stories that capture their imagination, that connect them to the world, or takes them into other solutions in a way that only a book can.

As a California Teacher of the Year winner, what special tricks can you share with the rest of us?

The truth is, I’m just one of many, doing my darnedest to keep up with all the great new titles being published, wrestling with the impact technology is playing on literacy and struggling to pen stories that kids will embrace. At times I feel bowled over, at times I feel overwhelmed and at times I feel just plain down. But I’m a fighter!  Why? Because we can’t give up! If this ship is going to go down, I am going to go down with it. After all, at the end of the day we are not doing this for ourselves but rather for the kids and the future of our society.  Deep in my heart I believe that the work we are doing collectively is important.

Check out AlanSitomer.com for info about all of Alan’s titles for YA readers.

Here are a few descriptions:

The HoopsterThe Hoopster: When Andre Anderson, a basketball loving “hoopster”, is attacked for his beliefs will he take the high road or stoop to vengeance?

 

Hip-Hop High SchoolHip-Hop High School: A tour de force of six teens in inner-city L.A. trying to make it and survive through their years as students in a “Hip-Hop High School”.

Homeboyz Homeboyz: When Teddy Anderson’s sister is savagely murdered in a drive-by shooting, to what lengths will T-Bear go to settle the score?

soniaThe Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez: A first generation Latina is caught between the culture of her familia and the culture of inner-city Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 Lee & Low Interview

originally published here: ftp://blog.leeandlow.com/2014/04/04/interview-with-a-librarian-for-incarcerated-youth/

Thank you for being with us, Amy Cheney! Let’s start with the basics: how would you describe your job, for someone who has no idea what you do?

Entrepreneur, innovator and relationship builder. But my overall job title would be Schlepper.

 How did you become a librarian for incarcerated youth? Was it something you always knew you wanted to focus on, or did you begin your career with a different focus?

When I was a teen, a neighbor was friends with Maya Angelou, and they invited me to hear her speak in a church basement.  I remember clearly not wanting to be there, and then as Maya Angelou spoke with such passion and intensity, I felt the hard armor around my heart begin to crack. I remember the struggle to hold onto what I thought was me, or at least my

I am constantly trying to advocate and educate for the library to be a right, and not a privilege that can be taken away.protection: the rage, indifference and sullenness. I recognized that if I was struggling with it, then I wasn’t a fundamentally hateful person. That was life changing for me.  I felt such a deep connection with her as a result of this inner experience, I read every book she wrote as it was published.

 It took me a long time to realize that this experience is the basis of my passion for bringing in speakers and activities to stimulate the minds and hearts of those incarcerated. From Shakespeare to Cupcake Brown to Ishmael Beah to MK Asante (wonderfully, one of Maya Angelou’s protege’s), I see kids feel encouraged, enthusiastic and interested in a place that tends to dampen all of that.

In the 80’s I was a part of the anti-nuclear protests – when my friends were released from jail I was horrified to hear there were no books where they had been housed. I immediately started a book drive for the jail and that ultimately led to employment at the library serving those incarcerated in Alameda County.

What does your average day look like? Do you even have an “average day”?

Almost every day involves advocacy. Today one of the staff told me that going to the library was like a field trip, all the kids love it. But, she said, the girls had not “earned” a visit, so they couldn’t come. This didn’t make sense to me. I am constantly trying to advocate and educate for the library to be a right, and not a privilege that can be taken away. I am advocating for youth to be able to come here, as well as in general, advocacy for the youth, library, etc.

What kind of relationship with books do your students have? What kind of role do books play in their lives?

I think initially, many of them have a negative relationship with books and reading, and others have a non-existent relationship with them. Some students do have a positive relationship with reading before they come here, but there is a huge percentage—probably the majority—that start reading here and get excited about it and read more than they ever have in their life.

Regardless of their relationship to books and reading the library is a desired destination and activity. They are fully respected and acknowledged here. And the atmosphere is remarkably different from the rest of the facility. There are plants in here! And windows! And outside the window you can see trees and clouds and birds and grass! Real furniture and comfortable chairs! We play a game (Taboo) and laugh almost every library visit.

there is a huge percentage—probably the majority—that start reading here and get excited about it and read more than they ever have in their lifeThe majority of the kids here ultimately develop a positive relationship with books and reading. Books are a de-stressor, they are a life saver. In fact, the staff that call me the most, that request that I come down and talk to a kid or bring a kid a book, are the therapeutic staff. They also advocate with me for kids on suicide watch, etc. to be able to have a book. Today I went out and talked to a kid that has been under a blanket for hours if not days. He actually sat up and showed some life when I brought him some books.

 Are there any books that your students are scrambling for? What flies off your shelves?

The bottom line is a. anything with action, and b. something they can personally relate to. And c, it makes huge difference if the cover is dynamic. My job is to find those books that have the right combination of the above. It’s a constant part of my job. While there are a few authors

MIDNIGHT, Sister Souljahwhose books I can’t keep on the shelf no matter what  (Sister Souljah, Cupcake Brown, Tookie Williams, Coe Booth, Alison Van Diepen, Alan Sitomer), there are others whose books I work hard to bring to light.  Right now as I look around I don’t see any of MK Asante’s Buck, for example. That’s an accomplishment: a cover with only words and no visuals isn’t something that in general attracts them. He visited here and so his book has taken off. He also stimulated the youth to read about their history, the history of rap music and books about the educational system in the US. Yah Hoo!

 What kinds of books are allowed in a juvenile detention center? What kinds of books are not allowed?

In general, what is NOT allowed is anything that’s graphically sexual or violent or that outlines how to make a weapon or alcohol—something that would be a direct threat to the security of the institution.

What is “allowed” is a huge issue, and is one reason that we wanted to create a listserve, web page Library Services for Youth in Custody, and now the In the Margins book award. My hope is that the book award will lend legitimacy to our titles and hopefully enable more facilities to carry them. I am working with a facility right now that says, “Books must be limited in violence, sexually explicit material, promotion of drug or alcohol abuse and vampire stories.”  It’s just bizarre the things people come up with to exclude and how they word and interpret it.

In my facility, I’ve made the choice not to advocate for “street lit” mainly because I think that

There is definitely a group of kids - maybe 5% - I am unable to engage in reading due to my choice to not advocate for street lit.battle is too big to fight since I’m fighting for kids to get to the library. In addition, I spend a huge portion of my life finding books that I believe will work with both the authorities and the kids. Street Lit titles often do have a lot of violence and sex in them which is why I’ve chosen not to advocate for them – but it’s a hard choice every day, and one full of contradictions. There is definitely a group of kids – maybe 5% – I am unable to engage in reading due to my choice to not advocate for street lit.

 What do you wish people knew or understood about incarcerated youth?

They are super resourceful. They are caught in a trap not of their own making—poverty—and are punished for many of the things that I, and honestly, most of us did when teenagers. I am constantly amazed the privilege afforded the white middle class and what people of color and/or those from the poverty and working classes have to work extra hard for.

A recent example: Kareem, who is a college educated African American wrote me an email and then recalled it because of the typos.  Meanwhile I wrote an email to the head of a very lucrative organization. My email was typed in lower case, and even had the phrase, “gratitude for all you do, dude.” I mean, not exactly thoughtful. Would anyone question that I was college educated? I doubt it. Kareem, and his beautiful, eloquent email with a few typos—he felt the need to correct it in order to present himself in the best possible light. It’s exhausting to constantly have to do that. And that is a *minor* incident.

There is so much policing and criminalization of poor youth and youth of color, I don’t think the majority of white middle class people really understand the depths of the inequity and the daily assaults. The juvenile hall (criminal justice system) is the crucible of race and class inequity in America.

Being in a detention facility, what unique limitations are you working with that a public or traditional school librarian might not be dealing with? 

You know the supposed foundation of our country, that we are all innocent until proven guilty? For the most part, that’s not in operation here. And let me be clear: most of the kids here are pre-adjudication – i.e. they have not been sentenced and are waiting trial  or more likely placement. There are a lot of unspoken power dynamics and struggles. When I’m in the living units I’m on the staff’s terms to a certain extent. When they are in the library, it’s more on my terms, but they always have the power to override me. It is definitely a dance.

There is so much policing and criminalization of poor youth and youth of color, I don’t think the majority of white middle class people really understand the depths of the inequity and the daily assaults.There is a completely different culture in a facility and if you don’t learn what the norms are you can’t be effective. There are unspoken rules and meanings. For example, kids walking down the hallway with their hands behind their backs are living there—on their way to court or medical. Kids walking with their hands by their sides are on their way out of the institution. There is a spoken language that is not used “on the outs” with phrases like, “the tone is high,” “live scan,” “pods,” “talking is dead,” and “prepare for transition.”

 The biggest limitation is “security” issues. Those can run the gamut from zero to extremely limited access to the internet or books on tape to candy, pencils, and envelopes, or even to students being prohibited from getting out of their chair on their own volition.  Things that you would never imagine are security issues can be seen that way from a certain perspective (that I actually have come to understand on some level). These limitations force a creative response.

Are there any common misconceptions you’d like to correct about what you do?

I think the biggest misconception is that the kids are hard to work with. And I’m not saying they aren’t hard to work with. I’m also not saying we don’t have seriously disturbed and disturbing kids. But in actuality, it’s the entire toxic system of mass incarceration that’s hardest to work with.  Finding your correct place in that toxicity is challenging, ever evolving, yet doable. The kids are the least of the problems.

Comments and discussions on the original post, check them out here:

 

Kemba Smith visited !

Posted: March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Resources

Finally! Kemba visited the girls at the Juvenile Hall yesterday. It was worth the wait – I’ve been talking with her since 2011. Her story is intense and the girls were riveted as she talked about her 4 year abusive relationship with a drug dealer, her sentencing of 24 years and the birth of her son in prison.

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Kemba Smith

Highly recommended as a speaker!

Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story

Today’s review is for a self-published, high-appeal personal story. Kemba Smith went from college student to drug dealer’s girlfriend to federal prison. Now she is determined to use her experiences to teach others. As stated in her bio, Kemba’s story has been featured on CNN, Nightline, “Judge Hatchett,” Court TV, “The Early Morning Show,” and a host of other television programs. It has also been featured in several publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Emerge, JET,Essence,Glamour, and People magazines. Her book was featured at the NAACP Convention in July of this year. You can purchase Poster Child on the author’s website or on the Kemba Smith Foundation website. CAll 1-877-781-8800 ext 101 or email info@kembasmith.com The author is working with Ingram to make her book available there in the near future.

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Poster Child

SMITH, Kemba & Monique W. Morris. Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story. 332p. photos. IBI. 2011. pap. $19.95. ISBN 978-1-934922-45-3. LC number unavailable. Poster Child e1320501938594 Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story Adult/High School–

Young adults who loved Morris’s runaway hit debut novel, Too Beautiful for Words (HarperTrade, 2001) and Cupcake Brown’s internationally best selling memoir A Piece of Cake (Crown, 2006) will find, thankfully, another book to keep them reading. Teens will relate to the words on the cover, “It was easy falling in love with a drug dealer. The hard part was paying for his crimes.” Smith became the “poster child” for the issue of federal mandatory drug sentencing laws, which have placed many low-level, nonviolent, and even inadvertent offenders behind bars for 25 plus years while their drug dealing, murdering, and abusive boyfriends are on the outside continuing their criminal activities. Readers will be hooked from the beginning, which finds 23-years-old Smith giving birth to her first child in jail. The strongest part of the book chronicles how she fell in love with, was seduced and mesmerized by Khalif, the man who ultimately caused her imprisonment. Smith actually made it out: she was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 2000 after serving 6 1/2 years of her initial 24 year sentence. Short on analysis and reflection, there isn’t as much depth to the book as some would like, but it is true to the events of her life and story, and provides a good read. Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2011) is better written, and brings to stark life the reality of many women remaining behind bars, but doesn’t have the teen appeal of Smith’s story.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, San Leandro, CA

First published NOVEMBER 17, 2011 http://blogs.slj.com/adult4teen/2011/11/17/poster-child-the-kemba-smith-story/

MK Asante

Posted: February 12, 2014 in Resources, Top Picks of the Year

is the hottest book and the best speaker I’ve had in a long time. The WORD is SPREADING – every day I’m getting more and more requests for his book from units where the kids didn’t even meet him, but just HEARD about him! Kid who met him have been asking for books on history, metaphor, and quotations!1743566_10152308872592122_1781677793_ni

In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee, (ITM) a committee under the umbrella of Library Services for Youth in Custody (LYSC) selected their first list of 25 titles and a top 10.  In the Margins strives to find the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody – or a cycle of all three.

The 2014 top ten are:

  • Asante, M.K. Buck: a Memoir. Spiegel & Grau. August 2013. 272p. HC $25.00. ISBN 9780812993417.
  • Jones, Marilyn Denise. From Crack to College and Vice Versa. Marilyn D. Jones. May 2013. 105p. PB $14.95. ISBN 9780989427401.
  • Langan, Paul.  Survivor. Townsend Press. January 2013. 138p. PB $5.95. ISBN 9781591943044.
  • McKay, Sharon E. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. Illustrated by Lafance, Daniel.  Annick Press. February 2013. PB $18.95. ISBN 9781554514885.
  • McVoy, Terra Elan. Criminal.  Simon Pulse. May, 2013. 288p. HC $16.99. ISBN 9781442421622.
  • Medina, Meg. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Candlewick. March 2013. 260p. HC $16.99. ISBN 9780763658595.
  • Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings, Bad Kings. Algonquin Books. November 2013. 304p. PB $14.95.  ISBN 9781616203252.
  • Rivera, Jeff. No Matter What. CreateSpace. October 2013. 112p. PB $5.38. ISBN 9781493544141.
  • Ryan, Darlene. Pieces of Me. Orca Book Publishers. September 2012. 240p. PB $12.95. ISBN 9781459800809.
  • Young, Pamela Samuels. Anybody’s Daughter. Goldman House Publishing.  October 2013. 374p. PB $16.99. ISBN 9780989293501.

“We are pleased with the founding of this list and our efforts of the first year. We have a great list, bringing to national attention books that are new finds and not widely publicized in the library world along with standout books of the year” said Amy Cheney, chair of In the Margins Book Award and Selection committee. “The committee is  excited to share these books with you for teens living and interested in the margins of society.”

The full list of 25 titles with annotations and more information on the committee, selections, and process can be found at:

http://www.youthlibraries.org/margins-committee

2015 Committee Membership is open. Please go to http://www.youthlibraries.org/margins-committee and fill out an application.

Be on the lookout for YA Underground in School Library Journal  2/19/14 for more details and an inside view.

ITM identifies quality, age appropriate resources for librarians and library workers to share with the teens in lockdown, homeless shelters and other non-traditional venues for teens living in the margins.

Founding Members of the 2014 In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee:

Chair: Amy Cheney, Juvenile Justice Center, Alameda County, CA; Administrative Assistant: Amy Wander Lafayette Public Library, LA; Katie MacBride, Mill Valley Public Library & Marin County Juvenile Hall, CA; Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan, Institute for Learning, University of Pittsburgh, PA ; Selenia Paz, Helen Hall Library, Galveston County, TX; Viola Dyas, Retired, Teen Services Librarian, Berkeley Public Library, CA; Dr. Julie Ann Winkelstein, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Tennessee, TN

Originally published in School Library Journal 2/19/14

Race and Teen Lit Class

Posted: January 29, 2014 in Resources

I am teaching my second class at Simmons. This one with awesome librarian Robin Brenner. Info below!  

Location: Online
$250 (Simmons GSLIS Alumni Price $200)
February 1 – February 28, 2014 – PDPs: 15

Part of Teen Lit Boot Camp Series

Teen Lit Boot Camp is a series of month-long workshops zeroing in on currently popular topics. The workshops will help librarians learn what defines hot topics, what the best titles are to meet demand, and how to anticipate and select for your teen fans. In this workshop, we’ll look at a growing concern for teen lit readers: is teen lit racially diverse? How dedicated is the market to being representative of our world, our readers, and our teens? How far should our responsibility to our teens go in ensuring our collections reflect their racial identities, questions, and voices? We’ll examine the recent debates concerning whitewashing covers, the challenge and importance of writing across race lines, and how best to connect with readers whatever their racial or ethnic identities. We will also discuss stereotypes, redefining what race may mean in teen literature, and how to pitch titles to fans without falling back on stereotypes. There will be a reading list, so sign up early to give yourself time.

I think I’ve given more starred reviews this year than I ever have! This was just run in Angela’s awesome Adult Books for Teens column….

Ishmael Beah took bestseller, best of the year, and school reading lists by storm in 2007 with his memoir of being swept up in Sierra Leone’s civil war as a child soldier. It almost seems anti-climactic to mention that A Long Way Gone won an Alex Award. Seven years later it is still a popular suggestion for teen and adult readers, and is widely known to be an effective recommendation for reluctant readers.

So, the publication of Beah’s first novel is an event. And I have to add that I am personally thrilled that it has potential teen appeal, even though most of its characters are adult. There is something in Beah’s writing that is youthful, that allows the reader to feel hope even as he describes the worst of circumstances. Here he examines the aftermath of the civil war by focusing on one small village in Sierra Leone, Imperi, whose residents are slowly returning. What can be recovered? What is lost? How do the survivors deal with their guilt?

In an interview on NPR, Beah offers intriguing, sometimes unexpected answers about elements of his novel. For example about the rehabilitation of child soldiers, “What do you do with certain skill sets and certain habits and certain things that you’ve acquired during war? Sometimes some of these things don’t need to be washed out of you, as most people will think. Whenever they see a former child soldier, they will think, “Oh, you need complete rehabilitation. You need to forget everything that happened in order to have a life.” No, sometimes you don’t.”

In 2010, FSG’s Works in Progress published a “conversation” between publisher Sarah Crichton and the author, which is still linked from his website. I find it fascinating because it addresses the effects of A Long Way Gone‘s huge success on Beah’s life. (No wonder it has taken years for him to complete a new book. He’s been busy!) They also discuss the possibility of a second memoir, and whether Radiance of Tomorrow is actually fictional.

* BEAH, Ishmael. Radiance of Tomorrow. 256p. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Jan. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9780374246020; ebk. ISBN 9780374709433.  Radiance of Tomorrow e1389638523490 Radiance of Tomorrow

Adult/High School–Beah’s second book is richly complex, exploring the moral and ethical dilemmas facing a variety of characters in the aftermath of war. The novel opens with two elders coming back to the devastated village they called home, Imperi, Sierra Leone. They set about removing skulls, bones, and dead bodies from the river and reviving their old way of life. They are beginning to be successful when a mining company moves in. Corruption abounds. Teens Colonel and Ernest are in the background, but they are key. Two of the most empowered characters, they clearly see and ingeniously navigate the corruption. Colonel puts himself in charge of the former child soldiers and orphans. He houses and feeds them, creates order, and finds a way to pay for them to go to school. He creatively and outrageously solves some of the more dismal problems facing the village, providing hope and real change. For example, he waylays the men who have been raping the women on their drunken way home, takes their clothes off, puts food on their private parts to attract biting ants, and ties them to a tree. During the war, Ernest was forced to chop off not only his family’s arms and hands, but also those of many others. Directly responsible for maiming one such family, he follows them to Imperi. Without their knowing, he takes care of them by fetching water and setting it by their door. Teens who loved A Long Way Gone ( Sarah Crichton, 2007)–and that’s a lot of them–will find this one slower moving yet equally powerful.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA