Hand Me Down
May 30th, 2012
Melanie Thorne admits right out the gate that her first novel is based on personal experience. In fact, writing it was a kind of therapy for the author, whose mother chose her sex offender husband over her children. At 14, Thorne was asked to leave home, and spent the following years moving from house to house along with her younger sister. The novel is a lightly fictionalized account of that time.
It’s interesting that the author chose fiction rather than memoir for her story. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewer remarks that “having avoided the sometimes controversial but more obvious choice of memoir, Thorne sounds utterly liberated as she describes the merits of exploring fact through fiction.” It would be interesting to hear more from the author on that issue. (The reviewer adds that Thorne’s fictional alter-ego, Liz, has the “clear-eyed honesty of a Daniel Woodrell or Bonnie Jo Campbell character.” You know that makes me want to read it immediately!)
Adult/High School–Liz, 14, and her younger sister Jaime live with their mom and her boyfriend, who just got out of prison for a sex offense. Living with him is creepy; he is far from rehabilitated. When finally it becomes clear that he cannot live with young girls due to his parole conditions, their mother chooses him. Liz moves from couch to couch until she finally lands in Utah at her aunt’s house, which is a welcome respite. Although her aunt loves her, Liz doesn’t quite trust her, especially when her aunt’s boyfriend is in town. And Liz feels tremendously guilty that she is living apart from Jaime and can no longer protect her as she is used to doing. Jaime is living with their father, an alcoholic who has a history of domestic violence and putting their lives in danger. Liz has a great deal of insight into her life and her issues, and much of the book is her internal exploration, most profoundly about choices. While it appears that she is at the mercy of her situation, she actually has a lot of options. How she comes to terms with her choices and their impact on her relationships makes for a satisfying read in spite of little action or major drama to compel the plot forward. A slow pace and a teen beyond her years in terms of insight and awareness make the story comparable to soft reads about difficult subjects, such as Janet Fitch’s White Oleander(Little, Brown, 2001).–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, CA
Becoming Dr. Q
January 10th, 2012
Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa tells the inspiring story of his journey from undocumented migrant worker to neurosurgeon and brain cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
An October interview on C-SPAN shows his energy, enthusiasm and optimism, as well as his awe at the beauty of the human brain. He discusses the racism he encountered early in his medical career, his path to becoming a legal citizen of the U.S., and how he keeps up the fight against brain cancer.
QUINONES-HINOJOSA, Alfredo & Mim Eichler Rivas. Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain. 311p. Univ. of California. 2011. Tr $27.50. ISBN 978-0-520-27118-0. LC 2011011531.
Adult/High School–Literally pole vaulting over the fence between Mexico and California with no money or knowledge of English, Alfredo worked in the fields, graduated to shoveling sulfur and then on to scraping fish lard from railway tankers. Within 10 unbelievable and action packed years, he is at Harvard Medical school. The book starts out with 21-year-old “Doc”–as he is called, only a premonition at this time–at the bottom of a railway tanker, overcome by petroleum fumes and literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as his brain shut down due to lack of oxygen. How he made it out of the tanker, surviving several other near-death experiences along with grueling work and poverty to become one of the top brain surgeons in the country, makes for great reading. Dr. Q’s personality jumps off the page; teens will relate to his challenges, insights, and drive. His naiveté with girls, especially the one who is to become his wife and number one supporter, is fun and honest and allows the superman to show his faults and humility in an authentic way. The path one takes in order to become a doctor and neurosurgeon is illuminating for those considering it, and interesting regardless.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Detoured: My Journey from Darkness to Light
January 5th, 2012
Jesse De La Cruz has written an important memoir chronicling his journey through and out of the prison system. His hope is that others will learn from his mistakes. Detoured is published by Barking Rooster Entertainment, which was co-founded in 2009 by authorLuis Rodriguez with the intent of supporting the creation of original content. Detouredwill be available on Amazon later this month.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably noticed that we are lucky to have Amy Cheney among our reviewers. Amy works with incarcerated teens, and she is always looking for books that will speak to them. Sometimes I send her books to review, but often as not she discovers these gems herself. For more, take a look at her list of the 2011 best books for incarcerated teens in yesterday’s SLJ Teen Newsletter, titled “Top Book Choices for Youth in Detention.”
Adult/High School–In this well-written and thoughtful memoir, De La Cruz details his descent into criminality, heroin addiction, and prison between the ages of 14 and 42. Born to a 13-year-old mother, he started life in a shack next to the Texas slaughterhouse where his grandfather worked. Stricken with polio at age three, he spent several frightening years incapacitated and often alone in the hospital, where he learned the coping skills that are necessary in being tough on the streets: an ability to repress fear, anger, and sadness. Determined not to be bullied as a result of his polio-stricken foot, he became a bully himself, aggressively attacking at the slightest provocation. De La Cruz spends a good portion of his book outlining honestly and with insightful specifics his transition from prison. He earned his Masters degree, obtained sole custody of his daughter, and found employment assisting parolees with sobriety and housing. He includes an incarceration timeline of events on the first page and an account of what happened to all the characters on the last page. Mentored by Joe Loya (Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber [HarperCollins, 2005]) and published by author Luis Rodriguez’s press (Always Running [Touchstone, 2005]), this is an important book about the Chicano “urban” experience. There are a huge number of Latino (and other) teens who will be eager to read, devour, and understand the making of this gangster into a man.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Holy Ghost Girl
December 19th, 2011
How thrilling to discover another memoir with appeal similar to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005)! Still, when I am looking for something to recommend to a high school reader, I often find myself checking, “Have you read The Glass Castle yet?” If not, it almost always goes, after just a short description.
What is the common thread among great memoirs with appeal to teens? I believe that it’s not only the interest in lives on the edge, not only the extremes of neglect or strange behavior, it’s the love. In The Glass Castle it is the love of the author for her parents, in spite of their actions. In Jesus Land it is Julia Scheeres’ love for her brother. In Holy Ghost Girl, Johnson cannot entirely condemn Terrell for the way he treated her mother, or her mother for her own neglect. She is still somewhat mesmerized by Terrell herself.
For more about the book, take a look at the author’s website, which includes a book trailer, readers’ guide, author Q&A, and excerpt.
Adult/High School–Charismatic traveling preacher Brother David Terrell had a wife and two children when Johnson’s mother ran away to accompany him musically on the sawdust trail, taking her daughter with her. Johnson’s memoir is framed by the announcement of her brother’s funeral and Terrell’s plans to raise him from the dead. In between the author grew up moving from extreme poverty to the height of Terrell’s success–revival tents at one point cover the size of two football fields and yield millions of dollars, private ranches, jets and multiple cars–to his inevitable fall. Much of the memoir details the author’s relationship with Terrell. Was he a con man? Prophet? Healer? When traveling together, he was a man of God and they rode in the car with his wife and children. When they were living together, she was supposed to call him “uncle,” which didn’t quite explain what to call him when he was kissing her mom on the lips. Johnson has a terrific ability to write details as seen through the eyes of a child, letting readers discern what is really happening before the narrator is able to understand herself, such as Brother David putting his hand on her mother’s knee in the back seat as he was driving and Terrell’s wife saying something sharp. Brilliant prose that is both precise and evocative of larger truths illuminates the normalized yet bewildering world. The story is not as dramatic but on par with Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) and Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land(Counterpoint, 2005). Teens are going to love this book.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Power & Beauty: A Love Story on the Streets
December 8th, 2011
Rapper T.I. is now an author, and his debut is a coming of age novel about two teenagers. His inspiration? The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (Pocket Books, 1999), the landmark Street Lit novel.
For more on T.I.’s writing process, inspiration and the difference between writing a book and writing music, take a look at this Huffington Post interview.
Co-author David Ritz is best known for collaborating on autobiographies with Ray Charles, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, the Neville Brothers, Janet Jackson — to name only a few.
Adult/High School–Power and Beauty are not biological siblings although they grew up as brother and sister sharing the same mother, who adopted Beauty. They are 16 when their mom dies in a fire. They comfort each other and then act on their sexual attraction. Soon after, they are estranged. Power goes off to be mentored by a hustler, Slim, in Miami, Chicago, and Atlanta. Included are many non-graphic sexual instances where Power can’t find enjoyment with women except while imagining Beauty’s face. The second half of the book focuses on Beauty’s life as she pursues success in the international fashion world. On the last page, they are about to be reunited, only for Power to be kidnapped in front of Beauty’s eyes. Readers who have made it this far may be invested enough to read the next book in order to find out what happens, but others will feel cheated by the ploy. Hot, raw, and gritty street lit it’s not. T.I., however, is hot in the hip-hop scene, and teens will be interested in this book simply because of his name. Fans of Denene Millner and Mitzi Miller’s “Hotlanta” series (Point) and Darrien Lee’s “Denim Diaries” series (Urban) might find this to be another book of interest, but it’s hard to believe that award-winning Ritz had anything to do with this book and its sluggish prose.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story
November 17th, 2011
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 theNAACP Convention in July of this year.
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
A Stolen Life
September 23rd, 2011
Jaycee Dugard’s memoir was an instant bestseller, and its teen appeal is obvious — Dugard was a teen for half of the time she was in captivity, and teens enjoy reading sensational, true stories. It is especially haunting that writing a bestselling book was on a list of goals she made while in captivity. Also interesting that A Stolen Life bears similarities to Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Most readers, including critics, seem to come away from the book genuinely impressed by Dugard’s ability to survive and rebound from her experiences. Dugard established the JAYC Foundation to help the families impacted by abduction, and just yesterday she was in the news again for filing a law suit against the federal government. Phillip Garrido, her abductor, was on federal parole for 8 years of her captivity. Any funds she might win in the suit would go to the foundation.
Adult/High School–Teens who have read about the girl who was kidnapped at age 11 and held captive for 18 years will be anxious to read this book. Written, as Dugard says, “in my own words, in my own way, exactly how I remember it,” the book provides details of her experiences. While it might not be as explicit as teens hoped, they won’t be disappointed: what is and isn’t revealed is thought-provoking. She discusses her past of being forced to hide in public to protect her abusers and her current need to hide to protect her children from media attention. Photocopied journal entries and lists are included along with grainy photographs. Many of the lists are like any teen’s and would be boring except for the context. For example, #1 on “Dreams for the Future” is “See Mom.” A list entitled “Affirmations” begins “1. Only I can make it happen. 2. I control what I eat. 3. Every day I become the person I want to be.” It’s disturbing to see how many encounters her kidnappers had with authorities and how long it took them to find her even with the entire “family” walking into a parole office. Some of the most interesting chapters of the book are at the end: Dugard’s rescue, reunification, and “free” life, and the huge burst of freedom and fear that brings. While other books explore the abuse and captivity, Dave Peltzer’s A Child Called It (HCI, 1995), Emma Donoghue’s Room (Little Brown, 2010), and Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl (Simon Pulse, 2008) to name a few, Dugard’s memoir is refreshingly innocent, kind, unsensational.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Girls Like Us
August 26th, 2011
Rachel Lloyd’s book is effective as both a memoir and as a way to build awareness for her cause. Lloyd is the founder of GEMS, Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, “the only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.” It is the largest organization in this country helping girls to leave the sex industry.
While a book like Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf, 2009) focuses on global trafficking, Girls Like Us reveals what is right in front of us here at home.
LLOYD, Rachel. Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself. 268p. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-06-158205-9. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School–Lloyd takes readers on a frightening, intense, angry, hilarious, passionate, and uplifting journey from sexually exploited minor to survivor and thriver. Packed with sobering facts (a recent Boston survey found that more than 44% of teens felt that physical fighting was normal in a relationship and more than half think that Rihanna was responsible for Chris Brown beating her), the book’s strength lies equally in Lloyd’s clear, honest autobiographical insights as she provides a roadmap of her relationships, challenges, and issues. Using her story as an example, Lloyd explores the notion of choice and responsibility. Entering into the sex industry at the age of 17 and clearly making a choice to dance in a club, she is able to depict and decipher the bigger societal issues that led to that choice out of non-choices and find peace in her struggle to overcome shame and blame. Her story is not typical yet it is clearly part of a pattern of the horrors of misogyny. It keeps readers turning the pages while offering a depth of example that makes her experiences all movingly real. Lloyd’s humility, humor, and strength shine through. The details of girls’ experiences, personal struggles, and political insights expose complex societal issues in accessible, expansive, and thought provoking ways. The title and cover will attract teens; the content will keep them involved and engaged.– Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Sher’s book is actually my current favorite, as it takes a look across the USA as to what is happening with the issue of child sexual exploitation, and includes wonderful programs such as Rachel Lloyd’s.Sher, Julian. Somebody’s Daughter. The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them. 326p. Chicago Review Press. 2011. $24.95. ISBN. 978-1-56976-565-4.Many fiction and non-fiction books address the topic of child sexual slavery – books such as Living Dead Girl, (Simon Pulse, 2008) Sold (Hyperion, 2008) and most recently, Lloyd’s Girls Like Us (Harper, 2011). Few if any books address the men that enslave children. An investigative journalist, Sher gives us an inside look at the men that are commonly called pimps, but – as he articulately details – are unequivocally child molesters and rapists: how they operate, think, manipulate, abuse and exploit. The book gives equal time to all involved (including so called “johns”) – the girl’s own stories and experiences are compassionately told, including Maria, raped and beaten by a cousin’s boyfriend at age 12, recruited at age 14 into prostitution, courageously keeping her earnings by age 18 while being terrorized by her former enslaver.Detailing inspiring and hopeful success’ Sher outlines what can realistically happen when sexually exploited children are treated as victims and all responsible adults involved – police, prosecution, public defenders, judges, probation and social workers come together to focus on providing real services to the victims and criminalizing those responsible. At the same time, he doesn’t minimize how far we have to go.Teens who are socially conscious, politically active, exploring feminism, society’s attitudes towards women, modern day slavery or who enjoy true crime stories that relate to them, such as Lois Duncan’s Who Killed My Daughter (Dell, 1994) will love this book.
The Language of Flowers
August 22nd, 2011
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous debut novel is about an 18-year-old girl who ages out of the foster care system. She begins the book homeless on the streets of San Francisco. The thing that keeps her grounded, indeed the way she is comfortable communicating with the world, is the Victorian language of flowers. Appropriately, her name is Victoria. Victoria has a gift for flowers, and one of the novel’s immediate pleasures is watching her discover her talent working as the assistant to a florist.
The juxtaposition of this old-fashioned language and the urban setting of the novel is particularly touching. The language is a secret part of Victoria, it feels almost as if it has sheltered her. So she is taken aback when she realizes that the attractive flower-seller in the market speaks it too — they pass messages back and forth by giving each other significant flowers.
However, the meaning of each flower is not as straight-forward and trustworthy as she was taught as a young girl, something she learns while researching at the San Francisco Public Library.
Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh began mentoring foster kids when she was only 23. She recently established the Camellia Network, which supports 18-21 year-olds transitioning from foster care.
I believe this novel will appeal to a great variety of readers. Teens, obviously, but I also look forward to recommending this one to my faculty/staff bookgroup at school.
Adult/High School–Chapters that alternate between Victoria’s past as a foster child and present as a semi-homeless 18-year-old reveal secrets and unravel mysteries and create a narrative that is richly textured and hard to put down. As layers of meaning unfold and overlap, past and present collapse into stunning insight about Victoria and her life. She finds love, understanding, and acceptance with her foster mom, Elizabeth, at age 8, so something truly horrific must have occurred to explain why she is aging out of a group home 10 years later. In the present, the young woman finds her first job in a florist shop, putting to use the language of flowers that she learned from Elizabeth, and she finds a way to thrive and connect through it. She creates bouquets for sad men wanting to reconnect with daughters, lonely wives, and anxious brides. She learns to work with marriages that she knows will last so as to keep her business successful and in demand. It is ironic yet thoroughly believable that despite all her success with other people’s relationships, her own are disconnected and distant. Teens will relate to the book: there’s a push/pull romance, teen pregnancy, lots of feeling outcast and separate yet never descending into victimhood. On top of that, it’s smart, emotionally sophisticated, realistic, and beautifully written. Other books have explored the experiences of foster and abandoned youth, including Janet Fitch’s White Oleander(Little Brown, 2001) and Billie Letts’s Where the Heart Is (Warner, 1998). The Language of Flowers soars above them.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
July 25th, 2011
The Kid is author Sapphire’s 2nd novel, following Push (Knopf, 1996). Today’s audiences know Push best as Precious, the 2009 film that was nominated for several Oscars. (The 2009 Vintage paperback reprint is actually titled Precious: based on the novel “Push”.)
The Kid is the story of what becomes of Precious’ son after she dies of AIDS. It is a powerful, painful story of sexual abuse, prostitution, rape and other violence leavened by a love of dance. Heavy material for teen readers, and I recommend that you read or skim this book yourself. As with most adult books with teen appeal, appropriateness depends upon its audience.
SAPPHIRE. The Kid. 373p. Penguin. 2011. Tr $25.95. ISBN 978-1-59420-304-6. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School–This novel, the author’s follow-up to Push (Knopf, 1996), opens when “the kid” is nine years old and attending his mother’s funeral. After Precious dies, he’s put into foster care and immediately suffers physical abuse at the hands of another ward; sexual abuse soon follows as he goes to the Catholic orphanage where he receives an excellent education but is raped by the priests. He is in a dream state when he goes to the other boys at night, a state of power and joy as he repeats with them what has been done to him. JJ – as the kid is called at his point – has no sense of responsibility for or awareness of what he is doing. Completely and horrifically realistic, his voice is stream of consciousness–or unconsciousness as the case may be. It’s a jumble of fantasy, memory, justification, anger, and outrage. He tries to convince himself that his mother died in a car crash and his father in the war. He hates the “faggots” and he’s not one. He didn’t do anything. At 13, he is taken to his great-grandmother’s roach- and grease-filled house. Toosie has little interaction with him until, out of the blue, she tells her gruesome story, including her own rape that produced Mary (Precious’s mother), and Toosie’s subsequent life as a whore. JJ’s only positive outlet is dance, yet it is short lived as he struggles with identity, isolation, abuse and sexuality and finally has a breakdown. This intense and difficult book is for exceptional teens – teens who love reading books such as Dostovesky’s Crime and Punishment or Morrison’s Beloved,and who need to know and understand more of Precious and her family’s world.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA