Check out this great 38 minute informational video from Ryan Dowd of Hesed House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYiEEhhrFh4&feature=youtu.be
Tags: african americans, children’s literature, community, publishing industry, self publishing, white supremacy
By March 16, 2015on
I can’t breathe.
I am a Black feminist writer committed to social justice. I write stories about Black children and teens, but within the children’s literature community I have struggled to find a home or what poet June Jordan calls “living room.” In “Moving Towards Home,” Jordan describes a place “where the talk will take place in my language…where my children will grow without horror…where I can sit without grief.” If “home” represents sanctuary—a safe space where one can speak in one’s authentic voice, feel valued, and able to thrive—then the children’s literature community is not my home. I am—and likely will remain—an outsider.
By industry standards, I suppose I am a failed author. Since I started writing for young readers in 2000, only three of my thirty stories have been published traditionally. I turned to self-publishing as my only recourse, and now face the contempt of those who see self-publishing as a mere exercise in vanity.
SELF-PUBLISHING OR SELF-SEGREGATION?
Last year a white Facebook “friend” suggested that my decision to self-publish was analogous to Blacks in the civil rights era choosing to dine in their segregated neighborhood instead of integrating Jim Crow lunch counters in the South. In her mind, self-publishing is a cowardly form of surrender; to be truly noble (and, therefore, deserving of publication) I ought to patiently insist upon my right to sit alongside white authors regardless of the hostility, rejection, and disdain I regularly encounter.
Since 2009 I have used my scholarly training to examine white supremacy in the children’s literature community where African Americans remain marginalized, despite the 2014 increase in books about Africans/African Americans. This sudden spike (reflected in the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) was not paired with a comparable increase in the number of books by Blacks, however, suggesting that power remains where it has always been: in the hands of whites.
Publishers Weekly’s 2014 salary survey revealed that only 1 percent of industry professionals self-identify as African American (89 percent self-identify as white). That the homogeneity of the publishing workforce matches the homogeneity of published authors and their books is no coincidence. The marginalization of writers of color is the result of very deliberate decisions made by gatekeepers within the children’s literature community—editors, agents, librarians, and reviewers. These decisions place insurmountable barriers in the path of far too many talented writers of color.
I know better than to turn to the publishing industry when I seek justice for “my children:” Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, Islan, Ramarley, Aiyana, and Tamir. I know not to hope that industry gatekeepers will rush to publish books for the children of Eric Garner as they struggle to make sense of the murder of their father at the hands of the New York Police Department. But I also know that children’s literature can help to counter the racially biased thinking that insists Michael Brown was “no angel” but rather “a demon” to be feared and destroyed. I believe there’s a direct link between the misrepresentation of Black youth as inherently criminal and the justification given by those who so brazenly take their lives.
The publishing industry can’t solve this problem single-handedly, but the erasure of Black youth from children’s literature nonetheless functions as a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Despite the fact thatthe majority of primary school children in the U.S. are now kids of color, the publishing industry continues to produce books that overwhelmingly feature white children only. The message is clear: the lives of kids of color don’t matter.
GAPING HOLES IN “MAINSTREAM APPEAL”
A friend who is a librarian in Oakland, CA, recently encountered a young patron requesting a book on Michael Brown, and she had to explain that the traditional publishing process will likely take years to produce such a book. Police brutality is an issue of great importance to the Black community—the poet Jordan has called it one of our “urgencies”—yet the publishing industry has failed to produce children’s books that reflect and/or explain this reality. According to Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton, self-published books “aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers,” as he wrote in a blog post entitled “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.” Sutton finds it “difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off.”
Really? How many children’s books do we have about police brutality—mass incarceration—lynching—HIV/AIDS? Homelessness and suicide among queer youth of color? How many books show Black children using magic and/or technology to shape an alternative universe?
These are the kinds of stories that I write and am forced to self-publish, because they are rejected over and over by (mostly white) editors whose “most important job,” according to Sutton, “is to understand what contribution your story makes—or doesn’t—to the big world of books and readers.” Longtime editor and children’s literature scholar Laura Atkins counters that mainstream publishers seem to worry about “publishing only those books which they think will be palatable to the ‘mainstream.’ This results in books that tend to target a white middle-class audience.” Many members of the children’s literature community clamor for greater diversity but remain silent when another Black teenager is shot down. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every U.S. institution except the publishing industry. Like racism in police forces across this nation, racism in publishing is cultural and systemic; the problem cannot be solved merely by hiring a few (more) people of color.
THE ASSIMILATION PROBLEM
In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View Culture, Kẏra condemns the liberal impulse to position “marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” It frustrates me that most people seem comfortable with the reform of the existing system rather than its transformation. The idea of trying something new seems positively terrifying, and those of us proposing viable alternatives are generally shut out of the diversity discussion. At the recent Day of Diversity held during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention in Chicago, I once again heard calls for best-selling books that will prove to the corporate publishing industry that there is demand for diversity. Yet Kẏra rightly observes, “When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.”
As a writer who prioritizes social justice over popularity and/or profit, I find “living room” in alternatives to the existing system. Since 2013 I have self-published 10 books for young readers. You likely won’t have heard of any of them, since indie books are excluded from review by the major outlets—which leaves just a few open-minded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won’t add a book to their collection (many don’t consider self-published books at all).
I SELF-PUBLISH FOR TRANSPARENCY
One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of “merit.” Atkins, who has written about white privilege in publishing, observes, “It isn’t clear how books are selected, or how they are developed or marketed. So we don’t really see why books are rejected.”
Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there’s a “long history” of self-publishing in the Black community. Following in the tradition of independent publishers such as Just Us Books, founded by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson in 1987, Alexander started his own press in 1995 and assumed responsibility for writing, promoting, and selling his own books. But I suspect most fledgling writers simply give up after hitting the publishing industry’s seemingly impenetrable wall.
As an indie author, I have the freedom to write about the things that matter most to the members of my community rather than waiting for approval from a gatekeeper who lacks the cultural competence needed to truly appreciate my work. Like the books generated by Reflection Press or Blood Orange Press, focusing on diverse authors and readers, my Rosetta Press imprint produces stories that are culturally specific and organic—not forced through a white filter in order to be labeled “universal.” Diverse books can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no friends of color and public schools are rapidly “resegregating,” the need for diverse children’s literature is greater than ever.
I am partnering with other artist-activists to develop a model of community-based publishing that uses print-on-demand technology to transfer power from the industry’s (mostly white) gatekeepers to those excluded from the publishing process. Currently, as writer-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, I am teaching free writing classes for children and adults and am developing a picture book about the free, 19th-century African American community, which the center will publish independently. I hold “office hours” and have set up a blog so that community members can “ask an author” any questions they may have about writing and publishing.
Instead of investing in a costly (and often antagonistic) MFA in writing, I encourage aspiring book creators to first take Maya Gonzalez‘s online course “The Heart of It,” which puts “the power of children’s books in the hands of the people and the community, in part by demystifying both traditional and self-publishing routes,” she says. An award-winning author of more than twenty books for children, Gonzalez is driven by a desire to restore voice to those who have been silenced: “Through the reclamation of storytelling we can hear and learn from each others’ experience. We can know each other again…perhaps for the first time. We can tell the stories we know we need to hear. And we can heal.”
LIBRARIES PRODUCING STORIES
I am hopeful that more public libraries will embrace a community-based publishing model and assist diverse patrons as they learn how to tell their stories, becoming producers and not just consumers of books. Public libraries have served as a sanctuary for me since I was a child, and I had a library card in this country long before I had a green card. The Brooklyn Public Library sends me into dozens of schools every year, enabling hundreds of kids of color to meet an author who lives in and writes about the magic to be found in their community. Most of my thirteen books for young readers aren’t part of the library’s collection, but perhaps that will change over time. I am hopeful that in the future the bias against self-published books will diminish as gatekeepers realize that it is unfair to punish writers of color for failing at a game that’s rigged. Until then, I will continue to self-publish, and I will offer my “organic” writing to the members of my community. I will find a home where my creativity can flourish. I will insist upon my right to breathe.
Tags: Bryan Stevenson, Burning Down the House, juvenile justice system
By February 18, 2015, published in School Library Journal on
As librarians who work with incarcerated and underserved teens and see the misinformation in the world about the kids we serve, the In the Margins committee realized a book list and award for adults who work in the margins and understand issues of social justice and inequity was needed. To this end, the In the Margins Social Justice/Advocacy Book Award was created this year. We are enlivened to announce the formation of this award and the inaugural winner.
The In the Margins committee recognizes Bryan Stevenson for his tremendous book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau).
The decision wasn’t easy. Our debate raged primarily between Stevenson’s title and Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (New Press). Just Mercy carried the day (most likely) because of its accessibility and passion. The title is winning tons of awards, and we are happy to be in the good company of his work.
In addition to the winning title, the committee has also provided the other nominations, with annotations. We hope that you will read one or all of these books to increase, deepen, affirm, and clarify your understanding of the issues facing poor people of color in America.
In the Margins Advocacy Nominations
BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. New Press. June 2013. 384p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.
Nell Bernstein doesn’t talk the usual talk about the youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Instead, she focuses on societal disregard and epistemic failure to educate and rehabilitate youth in custody. In a country that leads the world in juvenile arrest, this epic failure draws incarcerated youth deeper into the world of crime. Recent studies on offenders have revealed that those who are locked up as youth are twice as likely to be locked up as adults compared to those given alternative choices. Burning Down the House does for children what Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012) has done for adults: brings this issue to national attention. Bernstein outlines the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She takes a look at solitary confinement practices, “therapeutic prisons,” and juvenile reentry. Using solid teen developmental theory and research, United Nations findings, and trauma informed care, there is no book that so articulately sets forth the argument against the imprisonment of children. A passionate advocate for children, Bernstein highlights teens’ voices and experiences throughout the book, which adds and insight to the statistics.
GOFFMAN, Alice. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. University of Chicago Press. May 2014. 288p. Tr $25.00. ISBN 9780226136714. pap $16.00. ISBN 9781250065667.
For six years, Goffman emerged herself into the subculture and lives of families residing in a poor black inner city Philadelphia neighborhood. Goffman’s commitment to the integrity of the people involved shows throughout the work as she reveals the desperation, fear, and resourcefulness of a community trying to survive within a culture of surveillance. Children’s games are centered on running and hiding from the police; janitors and other hospital employees end up treating serious wounds, including gunshot wounds, on the street. Small business arise to assist people who need identification (if you don’t understand why people don’t go to the DMV or the hospital, you will by the time you finish this book). Entire families and some individuals within families are able to escape lives free from police surveillance, custody and control by virtually living their lives inside their homes. Written in clear concise language with scrupulous reporting, readers are able to see through the eyes and experiences of Goffman—a young middle class white college student and daughter of two prominent sociologists—the unfair and disproportional treatment of people by police. Based on the evidence presented in this investigative sociological report, there’s not much more to say about the separate and unequal treatment of people by police and the courts.
HART, Carl. High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. HarperCollins. June 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.
Hart was the only black person in America to receive his PhD in neuroscience in 1996. Hart bares his life and soul as well as his scientific findings in an eye-opening book about drug addiction and society, showing how stereotypes and fear, hysteria and racism, have informed our drug policies and enforcements—not the reality of drug addiction. In fact, it is the policies and enforcements that have destroyed families, lives, and communities far beyond what any drug could do. Coming from a background filled with domestic violence, poverty, and “the streets,” Hart examines his life, work and science in deeply honest, profoundly insightful and provocative ways. Calling for education based on science, and then decriminalization of all drugs, he advocates for a drug policy based on fact, not fiction. Reading this book will forever impact and change what you think you know about drugs and society.
HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. Sept. 2014. 416p. Tr $27.00. ISBN 9781476731902.
Hobbs was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale. After his murder, Hobbs was compelled to understand more deeply the facts of Peace’s life and the full scope of the circumstances that led to his death. Peace grew up in poverty in New Jersey with a hardworking mother and drug-dealing father, both of whom valued and encouraged his education. Peace was inherently and effortlessly brilliant, graduating from Yale University with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Like the three doctors of The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream (Riverhead, 2003), Peace made it out of the ‘hood. Or did he? Unlike the three doctors, he was a rarity in his family and community to attain such levels of education. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. Peace’s life and death were impacted by race, poverty, and education; Hobbs brings these complex concepts into reality through the powerful narrative of the specifics of one young man’s life.
STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. Oct. 2014. 352p. Tr $28.00. ISBN 9780812994520.
Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and America is one of them. What is the one commonality of people on death row? The race of the victim: if the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard, and wondering why when he was called to an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. Face to face with this man, Stevenson realized his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill—the imprisoned. In heartbreaking and personal details, Stevenson interweaves real stories with statistics and his experiences fighting to change the injustices. Fast paced and relentless, Just Mercy reads like a Grisham novel, with short chapters featuring real people’s stories: children, youth and adults who have found themselves in the system since they were teens.
YAMINI, Omar. What’s Wrong With You! What You,Your Children, and Our Students Need to Know About My 15 Year Imprisonment From Age 20-35. Smashwords/The Proper Perception. January 2014. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780991574605.
Yamini was 20 years old when he was sent to prison for being an accessory to a crime, and spent the next 15 years locked up in various institutions in Chicago. Life in prison is not about the fear of being physically hurt, he says, but the reality of “being kept, treated and controlled like an animal.” It’s the reality of losing human dignity and the struggle to maintain it amidst the chaos, boredom, insanity, humiliations, and degradations that make up life in prison. Hoping that teens who read his experiences will reconsider their behavior in order to avoid the same fate places the book in the realm of “scared straight,” yet the day to day details of a 15-year prison term and what it’s really like will have readers questioning the validity and purpose of locking anyone up.
ZEMAN, Marybeth. Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time. Vinegar Hill Press. Feb. 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780615953878.
Zeman, a juvenile detention center transitional counselor, created a library book cart as a way to connect with incarcerated kids in New York state institutions. Short chapters alternate between Zeman’s life and observations of and interactions with the teens she serves. As she rolls her book cart up and down the hallways readers hear the voices of the kids asking for the “book lady.” Anyone looking for reasons why someone would want to work with teens in custody, or beginning a simple library, will find Zeman’s tale of personal fulfillment encouraging.
Tags: african american, street lit, top books of the year, top ten, YA underground
After careful consideration and heated debate, the In the Margins (ITM) committee has selected its best fiction and nonfiction, top 10, and overall selection list of 34 titles. On February 18, we will announce our newest recognition—the Advocacy |Social Justice Award—for authors.
Authors on our top ten list are doing great work in their communities; we hope that this acknowledgement from us gives more validation that their work are impacting kids in the larger community of our nation as well. We have evaluated and used these titles across the country and in Canada.
In the Margins Top Fiction Award, 2015: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
In the Margins Top Nonfiction Award, 2015: Left for Dead by Ebony Canion
In the Margins Official 2015 Top Ten List
BUTLER, Pacc. From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel. CreateSpace. 2014. 170p. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781494771669. NF.
Gr 8 Up—Gang life seems like Butler’s only choice when he becomes homeless in Chicago at 16. Abandoned by his drug addict mother and viciously abused by his father, he played football as a child to escape the horror of his home life, but as a young man he learns to dull his pain by hurting others. How can a man raised by fear and violence grow into a loving husband, father, and mentor to others?
CANION, Ebony. Left for Dead. Life Changing Books. 2014. 228p. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9781934230596. NF.
Gr 9 Up—Canion survives financial hardship, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and young widowhood, but nothing prepares her for the vicious hit-and-run that nearly takes her life. When everyone expects her to die, she not only survives but becomes dedicated to helping others find the courage to overcome difficulties in their own lives. Even when the woman who tried to kill her shows no remorse and is given no jail time, Canion refuses to allow bitterness to rule her life.
EWING, Lynne. The Lure. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2014. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062206886. FIC.
Gr 9 Up—Brutally initiated into the gang, Blaise is expected to do increasingly dangerous activities including being a “lure” to entice rival gang members. A fast-paced contemporary drama that asks, what are the right decisions when all the options are wrong?
LITTLE, Ashley. Anatomy of a Girl Gang. Arsenal Pulp. 2014. 254p. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781551525297. FIC.
Gr 10 Up—Five multicultural girls join together to form the Black Roses, determined to create an organization that is theirs and that will work for them, a place where all of them are taken care of, belong, protected, and benefit. But dreams don’t always come true, especially in the real world.
MAGOON, Kekla. How It Went Down. Holt. 2014. 336p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805098693. FIC.
Gr 10 Up—Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is dead, a young black boy shot by a white man. Witnessed by many in the neighborhood, and told in multiple points of view, everyone has an opinion and explanation of “how it went down.” This timely story depicts the confusion, challenge, and politics of perception and racial stereotyping.
MILES, Michelle. The High Price I Had to Pay 2: Sentenced to 30 Years as a Nonviolent, First Time Offender. Voices International. 2013. 66p. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780991104109. NF.
Gr 10 Up—How does a young woman find herself serving 30 years for a nonviolent crime? This all-too-common story manifests itself in the life of Michelle Miles who followed her boyfriend into a life of drug dealing. When it all falls apart, Miles finds herself facing a seemingly endless sentence.
REYNOLDS, Jason. When I Was the Greatest. S. & S./Atheneum. 2014. 240p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442459472. FIC.
Gr 7–10—Friends + bad choices = deadly circumstances. When Ali and his friends land an invite to an off-limits party that is so under the radar you can’t even hear the music from the street, it’s just too good to be true. An innocent misstep leads to total chaos and causes the dangers from the streets to almost destroy friendship and family. A fresh debut that captures the heart and soul of life for an urban teen who is trying to make the right choices.
WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From. Legendary Publishing. 2014. 196p. pap. $15. ISBN 9780982786321. NF.
Gr 9 Up—Growing up on the streets of Columbus, OH, Wilson learns that survival means knowing how to lie and steal. At the age of six, he is traumatized as he watches the police arrest his crack addicted mother. Foster care, sexual abuse, and life on the streets lead Wilson to prison, ironically for a felony he did not commit. His resilience, hard work, and determination earn him his graduation from college and other accomplishments.
WORKMAN, P.D. Ruby: Between the Cracks. Vol. 1. P.D Workman. 2014. 486p. pap. $16.90. ISBN 9780992153953. FIC.
Gr 8 Up—At 13, Ruby’s dramatic life is out of control. She’s been out on the streets for several years and rotates sleeping with her social worker, a friend, and the boy she likes above everyone. Things get worse when she gets pregnant by the rival gang member who killed her favorite boyfriend. Sometimes she is the victim, sometimes she is the user—who will Ruby choose to be?
ZUSMAN, Angela Beth. The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project. Story for All. 2013. 206p. Tr $59.99.ISBN 9780988763111; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780988763104. NF.
Gr 9 Up—Got stereotypes? Get Griots. How do African American young men from Oakland, CA define themselves? What’s important? What wisdom do they have to share? It’s all here in striking photographs, visually appealing graphics, and short narratives. The hardback is of higher photographic quality, but the paperback makes the book accessible to everyone. The Oral History project that created this book can be replicated in other communities.
The Decision Making
Canion’s book Left for Dead won the top nonfiction In The Margins spot by a landslide and with no debate: it is a top read for youth served by the majority of the In the Margins committee. The top fiction slot was an intense debate between How it Went Down and Anatomy of a Girl Gang. These two books were in a dead tie for our entire debate; we kept changing each other’s minds creating another tie until the tie was finally broken. Exciting!
All of our committee members felt that How it Went Down, a multiple person view of a shooting of a black boy by a white man, was relevant, timely, and of great significance. Some of us have kids in our libraries picking it up and talking about the characters and the situations without any type of formal book group or facilitation. Others lobbied hard for Anatomy of A Girl Gang: in spite of its not so great cover, this book is going out and being read by boys and girls alike. It’s a crushingly and heartbreakingly realistic take of why kids get into gangs and their disappointments when the dream does not materialize. As one of my maximum security boys, Luis, wrote about the book, “…the characters show heart.”
We focus on books by, for, and about African American and Latino young adults living in the margins, as these are the kids that are disproportionately incarcerated in this country. First Nations kids fall into this category as well, and the committee is debating adding books by, for, and about them to our charge.
If there are any themes that surfaced this year, it would be, again, the many books written with female protagonists. In addition, there is a dearth of relevant and excellent books for Latino and First Nations youth living in poverty. We loved Hustle by David Martinez, and many argued fiercely for it to be a top ten. There are a few books that didn’t make our list with these protagonists that didn’t get the teen feedback we’d hoped for, or had other issues. More information is available about these titles at theITM website.
We are pleased with and proud of our list. The committee did amazing work in finding top books by little known self-published and small press authors, so much so that the majority of our top ten and even our list may be unknown to you, providing even more relevant books for your collections. We are proud to contribute to bringing these voices out of the underground and into your libraries.
That said, there are many titles that did not make the top ten list that our students are loving and reading. Make sure you take a look at those, and also the books that did not make our list as they may work for you, your libraries, your kids. We feel our selections will work well in any urban library setting with people from the poverty classes, and many titles will work just as well with adults as teens.
Annotations, the full list of 34 titles, the nominated list of 56 titles, and more information on the committee and selections can be found at the In the Margins website.
In the Margins is under the umbrella of Library Services for Youth in Custody. We have openings for our committee next year. Join us!
Originally Published in School Library Journal by Amy Cheney
Chair: Amy Cheney, Librarian, Juvenile Justice Center, Alameda County, CA
Administrative Assistant: Dr. Kerry Sutherland, Youth Services Librarian, Akron-Summit County Public Library, OH
Project Assistant: Mackenzie Magee, English teacher, Passages Academy, NY
Sabrina Carnesi, Librarian, Crittenden Middle School, VA
Dale Clark, Teacher-Librarian, Fraser Park Secondary, Burnaby Youth Custody Services, Burnaby, BC Canada
Joe Coyle, Project Coordinator, Mix IT Up!, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
Marvin DeBose Sr., Library Supervisor, Free Library of Philadelphia, PA
Maggie Novario, Teen Librarian, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, WA
Amy Wander, Youth Services Manager, Lafayette Public Library, LA
Tags: Bryan Stevenson, death row, Jeff Hobbs, living in America, Rayshawn Wilson
Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and Incarceration
When yet another Black boy is shot down or locked up, it’s a wake-up call to all of us to understand and challenge the systematically enforced racism that allows—in fact, ensures—this to happen. We are way past the crisis point. If you, your friends, or family members haven’t experienced the societal trauma of living in America being Black or Brown or poor, one of the many things you can do is to increase your awareness. If you have, the following selections can provide hope and context on this dire situation.
Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From by Rayshawn Wilson is my current top pick for youth and adults alike. Wilson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, knowing how to cook up a batch of crack, steal food from the grocery store in order to survive, and lie—all learned experiences due to his environment at birth. When he was six years old, his house was invaded by the police, guns drawn. He was put into the backseat of a police cruiser, terrified, watching as his crack-addicted mother was handcuffed and taken away. Thus began a journey that too many African American, Latino, and poor teens in this country have experienced: foster care, sexual abuse, and life on the streets. And for some, breaking into people’s homes and dealing drugs. “Crime was as constant as breathing and provided more promise than tomorrow,” Wilson writes.
After serving two years for a crime he did not commit, the young man became the first person in his family to graduate from college. How he got from his beginnings as a child of a single, drug-addicted mother (and fortunately, Wilson shows us a depth beyond that label) to multiple college degrees, among many other accomplishments, is stuff that will keep teens engaged and turning pages. Self-published, the book is well-written with a forward-moving narrative and just the right mixture of the young kid and teen action-filled years balanced with his later more adult transformations. There is too much type on the page and not enough white space, and I personally think the title and cover are a bit strange, but these are slight downsides of this terrific memoir.
Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and the United States is one of them. Most people are not aware that theone commonality of people on death row is the race of the victim. If the victim was white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Unacceptable: black lives matter. In heartbreaking and personal detail, Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption interweaves real stories with these statistics and his fight to change these injustices. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard and wondering why, when he accepts an internship in Georgia, where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This brought him face to face with what became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, and the mentally ill—— the imprisoned. He writes specifically about the South — though he covers these topics at a national level in the book. It’s as much a story about Stevenson as it is about the many people of whom he writes.
Chapters either feature one complete narrative, such as the story of the Confederate loving guard who makes Stevenson strip search before he’s allowed to enter the facility or an entry that moves the overall narrative further at a fast pace. Included are stories of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens, including the story of Walter as a through-line. Walter was at a barbeque with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of committing, and spent more than six years on death row. This book is a standout choice for teens and adults, illuminating the big picture and personal details of the unjust experiences faced by too many black, brown, and poor people in the U.S.
I can’t see many if any teens reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, mainly because it’s written at a distance from the protagonist by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s college roommate. Still, it’s a book that has stayed with me since I read it months ago, and felt it important enough to include here. Peace grew up in poverty in New Jersey with a hardworking mother and drug dealing father, both of whom valued and encouraged his education. Peace was inherently and effortlessly brilliant, graduating from Yale University with a major in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. NPR has chosen it as one of their top books of 2014. Shannon Rhoades, NPR’s Morning Edition staffer says, “Reading the book, you become witness to tremendous potential lost, and you’ll think about race, education and poverty in ways that perhaps you hadn’t before. It can make for excruciating reading at times—excruciating, yet essential.”
Let Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated is an anthology of writings by youth from four different national lockdowns. It’s published by a volunteer organization in St. Paul, MN, Save the Kids. There is some good stuff in here. It’s simple to read, and black-and-white graphics created by young people are included. The poem titles are in nice hip hop–type style, and the voices are raw (no moralizing here!). Typed versions of each selection with mostly corrected spelling are displayed alongside a photocopy of the real piece each kid wrote. Overall, it’s real, authentic and relevant.
Here’s an example of a poem I liked which shows a lot of insight as to the pointlessness of prison:
“Time In Here” by Dion
It’s not different from the streets it seems
in there the colors is gray and green
in here I hear people talk smack
sometimes it makes me mad, and sometimes
it makes me wanna jap.
I hear foul language
I hear kids bein’ angry
and that makes me stay the same me.
While some are less insightful, the simplicity is important as it shows the immaturity of the youth.
“Sometimes” by Dominique
I’m in jail n’ it feel like hell. Ma don’t pick
up the phone sometimes I feel all alone
Sometimes I call on people but still I’m alone
Sometimes I feel right. Sometimes I feel
Bottom line, these are the voices of incarcerated kids and we need to hear them. We need to read books written by and about people in the underground— review, purchase, and have them in our collections in order to serve our communities. And in so doing, perhaps we can make a dent in the profound and horrifying inequities and injustices in our so called democracy.
The reading list below includes not only the books mentioned above, but examples of essential books to read to increase awareness and become as educated as we can.
Reading Challenge: In the comments section, please suggest more titles that can inspire readers to do something about cycles of poverty, race, and incarceration.
ALEXANDER, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press. 2012. 336p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781595586438.
BEAM, Chris. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Mariner Bks. 2014. 336p. pap. $12.67. ISBN 9780544103443.
BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. New Press. 2014. 319p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.
HART, Carl. High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Harper. 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884; pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.
HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. 2014. 416p. Tr $27. ISBN 9781476731902.
MAUER, Marc and Sabrina Jones. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling. New Press. 2013. 128p. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9781595585417.
PARSELL, T.J. Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison. Da Capo Pr. 2007. 336p. pap. $12.00. ISBN 9780786720378
RIOS, Victor M. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York University Pr. 2011. 173p. pap. $24. ISBN 9780814776384.
SAVE THE KIDS. Let Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated (Poetry Behind the Walls). Arissa Media Group. 2013. 138p. pap. $10.69. ISBN 9781936900220.
STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 352p. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994520.
TAIBBI, Matt. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 448p. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780812983630.
TILTON, Jennifer. Dangerous or Endangered: Race and the Politics of Youth in Urban America. New York University Pr. 2010. 242p. pap. $27. ISBN 9780814783122.
WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From. Legendary Publishing. 2014. 196p. pap. $15. ISBN 9780982786321.
Published originally in School Library Journal, Dec 16, 2014
Tags: Ellen Hopkins, mental illness, National Institute of Mental Health
Great article and good list of books – not really perfect for the teens I serve, but important to have handy. ~ Amy
Byat School Library Journal
In this article
It’s been a quiet day at the reference desk at the rural public library where I work, but the hum begins to pick up as the afternoon wears on. Teens drift in, looking for books, movies, and video games. One of my regulars approaches me. He comes up to the desk once a month or so, and always for the same reason.
“Do you have any books on anxiety?” he asks.
I decide to skip the reference interview with him. The last time, it seemed to mute him and he ran.
“Sure let me show you,” I say, quickly heading toward the 600s. “Do you think any of these will be helpful?” There’s John Giacobello’s Everything You Need to Know About Anxiety and Panic Attacks, Lisa M. Schab’s The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, and Freaking Out: Real Life Stories of Anxiety, edited by Polly Wells.
“No,” he says, picking at the binding of the book nearest him.
“Can you give me any more details on what you might want?”
“Definitely not what I’m looking for,” he mutters as he disappears.
The next time he comes in, something is different. He makes eye contact. “Do you have any books on anxiety…Not information, but stories about anxiety? A novel?” he asks.
So he doesn’t want clinical information. He wants stories.
I go to the catalog, hoping to find one before I lose him. My search of the Novelist database, including the terms “realistic teen fiction” and “anxiety,” pulls up too many hits—and none seem quite right. The first has to do with superheroes. The next is about the “anxiety” of being in the popular group.
My friend starts turning away.
“Let’s have a look over here,” I say, heading to the teen space. I recently ordered a book with anxiety as a theme, and I know that the cover is blue. I scan the shelves. Blue, blue, blue. There it is—Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. I’ve read it and know the context. I flip to the first page and point to the line: “I am a depressed, anxious kid.”
My friend takes it, then nods, turns, and slips away. For the moment, I feel triumphant.
THE STATISTICS ON MENTAL ILLNESS
This and other experiences I’ve had make me start thinking about teens, mental illness, and the potential of bibliotherapy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH; 2012 data), approximately 2.2 million, or 9.1 percent, of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Millions more endure other conditions.
While mental illness is clearly prevalent, a stigma persists. A recent article in Time, prompted by the suicide of actor Robin Williams, estimated that about 60 percent of those suffering from mental illness don’t seek assistance. Reading is not a replacement for professional therapy. But surely, the right books can help.
The next week, I have a teen shadowing me for an economics class assignment. She tells me that she might ask a lot of questions, that her mind works differently, and that she has Asperger’s syndrome.
She also tells me that someday she will write a book about having Asperger’s—but not now, because she isn’t allowed to shout “loud and proud” about her condition. Her parents warned her not to tell her peers.
This may be for her own protection. Kids with mental illness—kids with pills—can be confronted by others trying to buy or steal them. They can also be targets of ridicule.
She admits that her situation can be frustrating, isolating—like a dirty secret. I ask if she has readRogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and notice that she checks it out before leaving the library.
Several days later, teens gather for our library’s weekly movie making club. One girl travels from three towns over to be there. I don’t know her very well, but I do know that she is in foster care. Sometimes she shows up with her therapist. Often, she seems to be in need of attention one moment and eager to be alone the next—turning away would-be friends with a cutting comment.
She settles in with the other kids who are sketching out ideas on neon card stock and talking. I overhear one make a joke about rape. “Hey, lay off it,” the girl says. “Some of us have to live with bad memories.” The group falls silent.
I want to help her, and consider retrieving the Department of Health and Human Services info book, or finding the number for a local mental health organization. But she has a therapist already. Furthermore, she isn’t asking me for that information. A book might provide some comfort, though I know I don’t have the context or the rapport to confidently hand her the right one. Perhaps Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, or Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm & Strange.
If the books are out in the open, maybe she would stumble upon a useful title on her own. I decide to create a display, starting off with a list of the 16 disorders under the term “Mental Illness” provided by the National Alliance of Mental Illness website. The conditions currently listed range from anxiety and autism spectrum disorders to eating disorders and schizophrenia. Then I dig for teen novels related to these conditions. Many of my favorite authors are among them: Matthew Quick, Ellen Hopkins, Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
The next afternoon, all but two of the eight titles are gone. Were they taken by teens looking for themselves in the pages—or others seeking to recognize peers, friends, or family members? Did Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls end up with someone struggling with anorexia? Did Hilary T. Smith’s Wild Awake find its way into the hands of someone feeling manic? Is Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock being read by someone who had been abused?
THE PROMISE OF BIBLIOTHERAPY
The statistics about teens and mental illness are staggering. In addition to the 2.2 million who experienced depression within the past 12 months, according to the NIMH data, 25.1 percent of youth from ages 12 to 17 experienced some sort of anxiety within the same time period, whether it was generalized, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), agoraphobia, or something else. Nine percent had attention deficit disorder, and two percent had an eating disorder. The list goes on.
Can reading help significantly? To my mind, as both a librarian and a writer, the answer is a resounding yes. Fiction has a special magic to it—the ability to weave a world outside reality. To simulate experiences and outcomes. For someone who feels alone, a friend awaits within the pages—someone who says, “Yes, I’ve been there. Have gone through that. Am suffering along with you.”
Is my perspective on the power of bibliotherapy accurate? To find out, I went searching, talked to some people, and discovered promising research on the topic.
“We use books with parents and kids to promote the feeling that their problems are not isolated problems,” says Lisa Estivill, the director of Adolescent Therapeutic Education and After School Services at Washington County (VT) Mental Health Services. “Many of our kids have read books in class and with their clinicians to help them better contextualize their disabilities and/or validate their experience.”
While professionals agree that bibliotherapy isn’t a mainstream methodology or a replacement for professional therapy, it can be a beneficial part of the therapeutic process.
“Bibliotherapy can serve as an unobtrusive, non-threatening medium to help adolescents relieve their stress and increase their coping skills,” write Heidi L. Tussing and Deborah P. Valentine in their 2001 article “Helping Adolescents Cope with the Mental Illness of a Parent through Bibliotherapy,” published in Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. Tussing and Valentine write: “They (readers) gain insight, on the problem-solving and coping skills of the characters, subsequently applying this learning to their own lives.”
Books offering insights into a peer’s condition are also beneficial, says David Rice, children, youth, and family services education coordinator at the Ch.O.I.C.E (Changing Our Ideas Concerning Education) Academy, an integrated transitional mental health facility and education center in Vermont. Rice cites an experience he had when his students read Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, a novel about a character who has Asperger’s syndrome. “Only one of the boys in class had Asperger’s, but the most profound aspect of the experience was what the other students learned about how his mind works, and how he corroborated with his peers what the character was feeling,” Rice says.
In Rice’s opinion, such experiences of bibliotherapy have far-reaching impact. “Though I have no concrete evidence of the effectiveness of bibliotherapy, through student responses and reactions, I would say it is not only helpful, but could also be profound,” he says.
FINDING THE RIGHT STORY
“Mental illness” is a vast term, and yet titles of all kinds are often placed in this catch-all category, which creates a challenge in retrieving the right book for a patron. Reading a book about a protagonist with an eating disorder is very different than reading one about someone with schizophrenia. Additionally, writers often steer clear of diagnostic terms.
On the one hand, I understand that not everyone fits into a label. As a creative writer, I hate labels. But as a librarian, I want to find the right book. A label, a category, would help.
Inspired by my book display, I set about creating a book list of realistic teen fiction with representation of mental illness organized by disorder. I have verified the category placement by MARC records, jacket copies, or, when those were unclear, confirmation by the authors themselves.
While I’m not claiming that books can be a substitute for therapy, within the right context, I believe they can serve as valuable touchstones, conversation starters, and companions. It is my hope that this list can help librarians, teachers, therapists, and teens better identify books to suit their specific needs. So that everyone might find a Dr. Bird—a companion on an often too solitary road.
Erin E. Moulton is a teen librarian at the Derry (NH) Public Library and author ofChasing the Milky Way (Penguin Random House, 2014).
REALISTIC TEEN FICTION AND MENTAL HEALTH
A BOOK LIST
Caletti, Deb. The Nature of Jade (S. & S., 2007)
Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Anything but Typical (S. & S., 2009)
Colasanti, Susane. Waiting for You (Viking, 2009)
Herbach, Geoff. Stupid Fast (Sourcebooks Fire, 2011)
*Roskos, Evan. Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (Houghton Harcourt, 2013)
Schutz, Samantha. I Don’t Want to Be Crazy (Scholastic, 2006)
AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS
Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, 2004)
Erskine, Kathryn. Mockingbird (Philomel, 2010)
Franklin, Emily, and Halpin, Brendan. The Half-Life of Planets (Hyperion, 2010)
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Doubleday, 2003)
Jacobs, Evan. Screaming Quietly (Saddleback, 2013)
Kelly, Tara. Harmonic Feedback. (Holt, 2010)
Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Rogue (Nancy Paulsen, 2013)
Miller, Ashley Edward. Colin Fischer (Penguin, 2012)
Roy, Jennifer. Mindblind (Marshall Cavendish, 2010)
Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World (Scholastic, 2009)
ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER (ADD)/ATTENTION DEFICIT HYPERACTIVITY DISORDER (ADHD)
Costa, T.L. Playing Tyler (Strange Chemistry, 2013)
Page, Katherine Hall. Club Meds (Simon Pulse, 2006)
Rue, Nancy. Motorcycles, Sushi and One Strange Book (Zonderkidz, 2010)
Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse (Simon Pulse, 2007)
Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places (Knopf, 2015)
Reed, Amy. Crazy (Simon Pulse, 2012)
Polsky, Sara. This Is How I Find Her (Albert Whitman, 2013)
Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy (HarperCollins, 1999)
Smith, Hilary T. Wild Awake (HarperCollins, 2013)
Wilson, Jacqueline. The Illustrated Mum (Delacorte, 2005)
Wunder, Wendy. Museum of Intangible Things (Penguin, 2014)
Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007)
Cardi, Annie. The Chance You Won’t Return (Candlewick, 2014)
Draper, Sharon M. “Hazlewood High Trilogy” (S. & S.)
Ford, Michael Thomas. Suicide Notes (Harpercollins, 2008)
Green, John, and Levithan, David. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (Dutton, 2010)
Halpern, Julie. Get Well Soon (Feiwel and Friends, 2007)
Hubbard, Jennifer R. Try Not to Breathe (Viking, 2012)
Jenkins, A.M. Damage (HarperCollins, 2001)
Jones, Traci L. Silhouetted by the Blue (FSG, 2011)
McNamara, Amy. Lovely, Dark and Deep (S. & S., 2012)
*Quick, Matthew. Sorta Like a Rock Star (Little, Brown, 2010)
Sales, Leila. This Song Will Save Your Life (FSG, 2013)
Schumacher, Julie. Black Box (Delacorte, 2008)
Vizzini, Ned. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Hyperion, 2007)
Wolitzer, Meg. Belzhar (Dutton, 2014)
*also PTSD and autism
Cusick, John M. Girl Parts (Candlewick, 2010)
*Hopkins, Ellen. Identical (S. & S., 2008)
Leno, Katrina. The Half Life of Molly Pierce (HarperCollins, 2014)
*also eating disorders
DUAL DIAGNOSIS: MENTAL ILLNESS AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Cinco Puntos, 2009)
*PTSD and alcoholism
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls (Viking, 2009)
Anonymous. Letting Ana Go (Simon Pulse, 2013)
Bell, Julia. Massive (Young Picador, 2003)
Colbert, Brandy. Pointe (Putnam, 2014)
Friedman, Robin. Nothing (Flux, 2008)
Hopkins, Ellen. Perfect (S. & S., 2011)
Jaden, Denise. Never Enough (Simon Pulse, 2012)
Kaslik, Ibi. Skinny (Walker, 2006)
Littman, Sarah Darer. Purge (Scholastic, 2009)
Metzger, Lois. A Trick of the Light (HarperCollins, 2013)
Reed, Amy. Clean (Simon Pulse, 2011)
Shahan, Sherry. Skin and Bones (Albert Whitman, 2014)
Vrettos, Adrienne Maria. Skin (S. & S., 2006)
OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER (OCD)
Ayarbe, Heidi. Compulsion (HarperCollins, 2011)
Chappell, Crissa-Jean. Total Constant Order (HarperCollins, 2007)
Harrar, George. Not as Crazy as I Seem (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
Haydu, Corey Ann. OCD Love Story (Simon Pulse, 2013)
Hopkins, Ellen. Fallout (S. & S., 2010)
Karo, Aaron. Lexapros and Cons (FSG, 2012)
McGovern, Cammie. Say What You Will (HarperCollins, 2014)
Vaughn, Lauren Roedy. OCD, the Dude, and Me (Dial, 2013)
Wilson, Rachel. Don’t Touch (HarperCollins, 2014)
POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD)
War and Death
Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory (Viking, 2014)
Avashti, Swati. Chasing Shadows (Knopf, 2013)
Doller, Trish. Something Like Normal (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Herbach, Geoff. “Reinstein Trilogy” (Sourcebooks Fire)
Morgenroth, Kate. Echo (S. & S., 2007)
Quick, Matthew. Boy21 (Little, Brown, 2012)
Reinhardt, Dana. The Things a Brother Knows (Random/Wendy Lamb, 2010)
*King, A.S. Reality Boy (Little, Brown, 2013)
Kuehn, Stephanie. Charm & Strange (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013)
**Kuehn, Stephanie. Complicit (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)
*Mesrobian, Carrie. Sex and Violence (Carolrhoda, 2013)
**Quick, Matthew. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (Little, Brown, 2013)
Perry, Jolene. Stronger Than You Know (Albert Whitman, 2014)
***Rainfield, Cheryl. Scars (WestSide, 2010)
Rainfield, Cheryl. Stained (Houghton Harcourt, 2013)
Averett, Edward. Cameron and the Girls (Clarion, 2013)
Bock, Caroline. Before My Eyes (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)
*de la Peña, Matt. I Will Save You (Delacorte, 2010)
James, Brian. Life Is But a Dream (Feiwel and Friends, 2012)
Schindler, Holly. A Blue So Dark (Flux, 2010)
Sheff, Nic. Schizo (Philomel, 2014)
Suma, Nova Ren. 17 & Gone (Dutton, 2013)
Trueman, Terry. Inside Out (HarperCollins, 2003)
Ayarbe, Heidi. Compromised (HarperCollins/HarperTeen, 2010)
Friesen, Jonathan. Jerk, California (Speak, 2008)
Note: I was unable to identify realistic teen fiction titles for borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. Feel free to suggest titles in the comments section.
Published in School Library Journal By October 14, 2014on
As I read, and read, and read some more, I am always looking for the combination of elements that will make the book a hot read for reluctant readers and the kids I serve in the YA Underground.
The winning recipe, and I can’t say it enough, is this:
- A great cover.
- Lots of action and adventure—exterior action, not interior. Prose that shows, not tells.
- Relevant (and for my teens this means real).
- White space and a large type face.
I wrote about Pacc Butler’s book From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member (Createspace, 2014) as my top pick in the last YA Underground, but I lamented the cover. Well, he’s changed it. I love the new cover, and it will surely have the book flying off the shelves.
Runaway Thoughts, an anthology of kids writing about the pain of the prison system, also has an updated cover image.
My current top pick is Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal Pulp, 2014), by Ashley Little, who has written for Orca Book Publishers. This title has action, relevancy, and a strong layout—all must-haves for reluctant readers—though it lacks a great cover. Raw, real, and written at a rapid pace, the book describes the formation and dissolution of a gang of teenagers, told from the multiple perspectives of the girls involved. It has a deserved starred review from Kirkus and is flying off the shelves in spite of the cover (it helps that the word gang is in the title).
In many instances, a book’s heft can be an intimidating barrier for reluctant readers; however, if it hits all the four points, it can still take off—genre can triumph over size. Kerry Sutherland, youth services librarian at Akron-Summit County Public Library in Northeast Ohio, recommends several 400-plus page books that will still appeal to reluctant readers. Sutherland has been involved with outreach to homeless and marginalized teens for over nine years, most currently with Safe Landing Youth Shelter for Girls.
The first of Sutherland’s suggestions is The Old Neighborhood (Curbside Splendor, 2014), a debut novel from Chicago Tribune writer Bill Hillman. Having grown up on Chicago’s South Side, teenage Joe is aware of the dangers of drugs and gangs, but he also feels a deep connection to his neighborhood. He also knows that the secrets that bind him to his family and friends can be more powerful than his sense of right and wrong. This coming-of-age novel gets down and dirty, revealing hard truths about the challenges of attempting to both stay loyal to loved ones and obey the law on the Chicago streets.
Sutherland’s second recommendation is P.D. Workman’s Ruby: Between the Cracks: Vol. 1 (Workman, 2014). The title character is a young teen in foster care who is sexually involved with her case worker, one of many relationships she initiates with adult men. Taken from her parents because of suspected abuse, she wanders aimlessly in pursuit of freedom while in desperate need of emotional security. Ruby has super dense type, but fans of Ellen Hopkins’s books will love the soap opera that is Ruby’s troubled life, including pregnancies, gang and drug involvement, and post-traumatic stress issues.
On the other extreme, there are super short, full-color books. Saddleback’s “Emerge” boxed sets, part of the publisher’s Teen Emergent Reading Libraries TERL, are ideal for my adolescents who read at a lower level. I always have quite a few preschool reading–level teens, and there’s not a lot out there for them. Forty-eight pages each, with a count of around 500 words, these books are simple, personal, and concrete, without complex themes and abstractions. Some of the photos feel a little clean cut and young for my crowd, but they still work. Eric, a PreK-level reader, tried P.J. Gray’s The Test (2014), a book in which a pregnancy test prompts a girl to look back on her relationship with her boyfriend. Eric said it was the first book he ever read and that “It was stuff I be doing. First they got along, then they didn’t, then they did again,” proving that subject matter that resonates with teens can be a surefire draw.
Of the five genres covered in the sets, the ones that work for my urban teens are realistic fiction and history/culture.The sports—mostly, not all—are activities that my teens don’t engage in, such as swimming and skateboarding. Action/adventure books includes titles in which characters get lost in the winter wilderness—again, stuff that my teens aren’t involved in (I’m based in California) and that therefore don’t fill the relevancy requirement. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to purchase titles individually in order to customize what will work with your students. Saddleback told SLJ that exposing kids to several different genres with different demographics actually leads to a higher level of engagement. Saddleback also mentioned they have incorporated nonfiction into every genre as well, to bring realism to the grouping. However, for my purposes and for kids who do like picture books they can relate to, I wish I could purchase simply the ones I want and not the entire set.
Anthony D. Ross’s Homeless at Age 13 to a College Graduate (Step One, 2014) has the page count necessary for a low level reader, but the author makes a mistake common to self-published writers: a bad cover photo. The curlicue font only makes things worse. However, the book itself is important and relevant to virtually all my teens, as would be any memoir of an individual thriving in spite of horrendous circumstances. The writing is decent and moves at a fast clip, though the book isn’t action packed. Ross is up front about the obstacles he faced (lack of food, neglect, abuse), there mainly a positive thread running through the book, with Ross emphasizing his accomplishments.
I met Anthony Whyte, an Essence best-selling author and founder of Augustus Publishing and Street Literature Review Magazine: The Voice of Hip Hop Literature, while attending BookExpo America earlier this year. Had the conference been more diverse, he might have been mobbed. Due to popular demand, Whyte has begun writing for teens with Thin Line: A Child’s Eyes Never Lie (Augustus, 2013). The opening action sequence sets the stage for a mystery—11-year-old Shareef’s best friend and her family are gunned down. Why? The action slows way down to explain, the narrative becomes repetitive, and action is substituted for internal obsessions and stressors. The young protagonist uses words such as aplomb and discrepancy and freely walks into the crime scene several times using a hidden key—these are just a few of unbelievable aspects. Still, this one may satisfy the street lit genre crave, even though it’s a tamed down version without sex or real action.
Thin Line may be one of these titles that works for kids but not for me. A book like this is challenging for me to get through: the repetitions, contradictory information, unbelievable characters or settings and some of the same old, same old—I keep putting the book down because I am bored, bored, bored. Yet for my kids, many of whom have special processing issues (for instance, they may be designated as special ed or may have ADHD or PTSD), relevancy trumps everything. Further, the repetition that so frustrates me is what helps them understand the narrative.
BUTLER, Pacc. From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014. 162p. $12.99. 9781494771669.
FRIEDMAN, Amy and Kalliope Panatiotakos, eds. Venice High School Students. Runaway Thoughts: The Pain of the Prison System Anthology. 2014. 183p. pp. $20. ISBN 9781495113598.
GRAY, P.J. The Test. Emerge Boxed Set, TERL Level 1. Saddleback Publishing, 2014. 20 titles. $449.95. ISBN 9781622508662.
HIGGINS, M.G. Boy Soldier. Saddleback, 2014. 48p. Sold in sets: Emerge History/Culture 9781622508105.
HIGGINS, M.G. Stand. Saddleback, 2014. 48p. Sold in sets: Emerge Sports 9781622508020.
HILLMANN, Bill. The Old Neighborhood: A Novel. Curbside Splendor, 2014. 500p. $ 15.95. 978-1940430003
LITTLE, Ashley. Anatomy of a Girl Gang. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014. 254p. $13.68 978-1551525297.
ROSS, Anthony. Homeless at Age 13 to a College Graduate: An Autobiography. Step One Publishing, 2014. 96p. $8.99. 978-0991322435.
WHYTE, Anthony. Thin Line: A Child’s Eyes Never Lie. Augustus Publishing, 2013. 224p. $14.95. 9780982541524.
WORKMAN, P.D. Ruby Between the Cracks #1. Workman, 2014. 484p. $17.75. 9780992153953.
As promised, here is the guest post by Greg. I loved having him at the hall. I can’t find his newest book Pirates on the shelves in the units- that means the kids have it in their rooms and are reading it. If you want to have him come speak to your youth, contact him through his website http://about.me/greg_cummings – (He currently lives in NY). Here is his blog: http://talesfromtherift.blogspot.com
And here is his post:
It’s a scorching, dry Saturday morning in California. Another rainless summer has turned the hills above San Leandro yellowish-gray. My taxi turns off a serpentine drive into an empty parking lot.
Embedded in the hillside, the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center is a vast, rectangular three-story construction, built with beige cinder blocks that blend in well with its surroundings. There’s no one in sight.
After instructing my taxi driver to return in 90 minutes, I activate the intercom next to the weekend entrance. “Who is it?” asks a female voice.
“Greg Cummings. I’m the author giving a talk to Unit 4 today.”
“Greg Cummings. Amy Cheney arranged my visit…”
“Hang on a minute hun.”
While I wait for clearance into the prison, Mountain Mike’s escape story comes to mind.
When Mountain Mike escaped a minimum-security federal correctional facility called William Head on Vancouver Island, he fashioned a raft from a coffin used in the prison’s amateur theatre production of Dracula, then paddled out across the Juan de Fuca Straits towards the Canadian mainland.
The coffin disintegrated and Mike sank to the bottom of the cold straights. “I was sure I was a goner,” he recalled, “but then a divine light beaconed me upward again. And then I found the strength to resurface and swim ashore.” He had a couple of weeks of freedom before the Mounties caught up with him.
I heard about Mountain Mike from one of his fellow inmates. It was October 1983, and I had just watched a performance of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by William Head on Stage (WHoS), an inmate-run prison theatre company – the only one in Canada that invites the public into the prison to see their shows. I was struck by the force of the cast’s performances, playing to a packed house, unbound by their incarceration. I had never seen such savage intensity in the eyes of actors. Read the rest of this entry »
I had such a great week last week. Well, I mean on Friday. It truly revitalized me.
The day to day of the detention center is drudgery. Trudging along down the long windowless hallway. Schelping boxes of books. Picking your battles of the many that could be picked. Seeing the kids in “their rooms” – a LOT. Seeing the kids lining up and marching down the hallway. The silence of no marching when there is not enough staff to bring the kids to the library or the gym. Ok, I won’t depress you.
But then Greg Cummings came! Truly it was for me, because it is such a delight to see an author finding an audience. Of course the kids loved him, and the staff loved him, and the kids had TWO new books to read over the weekend. I’ve asked Greg to write a guest post about the experience…. look for it next week.
In the United States, more than 2,500 individuals are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger. A powerful new documentary, “Lost for Life,” tells the stories of these individuals, their families and the families of the victims. The film is the result of writer-director-producer Joshua Rofé’s intensive efforts over four years.
“Lost for Life” — an official selection of five major U.S. Film Festivals, a ratings powerhouse for the BBC in the U.K., and a title coming to television in 57 countries (including Lifetime Movie Network in the U.S.) — will be available in the U.S. on iTunes. Produced by Ted Leonsis, Rick Allen, Mark Jonathan Harris, Peter Landesman and executive producers Scott Budnick and Ari Silber, “Lost for Life” highlights four stories of homicide and the resulting life sentences for the teenage offenders.
Veteran documentary filmmaker Harris, who claimed Oscars for “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” and “The Redwoods,” collaborated with Rofé as a mentor on the project. In fact, the two worked so well together, they are now in production on their next documentary, “Swift Current,” about the impact of sexual abuse.
“I would not have ended up with the film we ended up with if not for Mark pretty much showing me how to be a director,” Rofé told Indiewire.
I loved this film.