Gangs, Drugs, & Renewal: Self-published Memoirs Offer Hope to Troubled Teens

Posted: March 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, On Our Minds

By Amy Cheney on October 1, 2012 5 Comments

SLJ1210w FT CHENY1revised Gangs, Drugs, and Renewal: Self published Memoirs Offer Hope to Troubled TeensRegina Mason talks to our teens about her great-great-great-grandfather’s self-published memoir, Life of William Grimes, the Runway Slave.  Photographs by Michael Lucia

Ten teens, ages 16 to 17, dressed in tan pull-on pants and dark blue sweatshirts with “Alameda County Juvenile Hall” stamped across their chests, are in my library, crowding around me and talking all at once.

“He said he was hit with an electrical cord, but in the book he says it was a snakeskin belt,” says one boy, pouncing on a disparity between what an author told us when he recently visited and what he wrote in his memoir.

“Yeah, and he said he was wearing a black cap, but in the book, he’s wearing an A’s cap,” says another. “There’s like a million things he said that aren’t the same in the book.”

“Liar!” explodes one teen. “Poser,” adds another.

The teens are talking about Street Life, a self-published title by Victor Rios that charts his former life as a gang member in East Oakland, CA. I’m listening to what they’re saying with a serious look on my face and a big grin inside. One of the kids practically listed the page numbers of all of the inconsistencies he found.

SLJ1210w FT CHENY2 Gangs, Drugs, and Renewal: Self published Memoirs Offer Hope to Troubled Teens“I’m impressed,” I tell them. “You guys are amazing readers. You could be editors! Let’s call him up and see what he says.” They’re stunned as I pick up the phone and reach Rios’s voice mail. “Victor, I have some young men here who have a lot to say.” I share the boys’ concerns and promise them that I’ll let them know when I hear back from him.

The next day they’re playing basketball, when I come in with my cell phone and Rios’s enthusiastic response on my voice mail. About five of them immediately come over when they see me. It’s not lost on me that this conversation is more interesting to them than being out of their cells and shooting hoops.

“What did he say?” asks one of the kids. “She here to tell us what Poser say,” says another, and he calls over someone who’s still playing basketball. Rios’s message explains how difficult it is to remember life’s specifics, especially after a significant amount of time has passed, and how sometimes details in a book may differ from those in an unscripted conversation. He also explains that as a self-published author, he didn’t have the benefit of working with agents, publishers, and editors. I’m not sure if my kids completely buy the explanation, but we have a satisfying discussion about memoirs, memory, trauma, and writing.

I’m always looking for books that my reluctant—and picky—readers will want to read. Since the most common requests are for books about gangs, killings, violence, and sex—and since I work in partnership with both California’s Alameda County Probation and Alameda County Office of Education—it’s a challenge. When Rios’s self-published memoir came across my desk, I ordered 30 copies and set a date for the author, who’s now a sociologist and associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to speak to about half of my 250 African-American and Latino teens.

Frankly, I’m thrilled that they listened to his presentation so attentively and read his book so carefully. I’m also grateful that my teens, who on average read at a fourth-grade level, are engaged, reading, thinking critically, and discussing books. After Rios’s visit, they even talked about tackling his latest book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press, 2011), a three-year study of youth, police and the streets.

It’s no secret that street lit is hot, especially books by K’wan, JaQuaris, and Woods. But the vast majority of it is geared toward adults, and it’s too explicit. The teens in Juvenile Hall are state wards, and those of us who work here serve in loco parentis, so I can’t justify or defend those types of books in my library. There are a growing number of street-lit titles for teens, including series such as “Babygirl Daniels” and “Wahida Clark Presents YA,” that I carry and that my teens devour. Because kids can sometimes be in and out of the system for much of their teenage years (due to the system’s massive failures), they eventually start to read while they’re here. And when they do, they read a lot! And then they complain that they’ve readeverything in the library. While that’s not exactly true, they have read everything in their narrow, picky zone of what they like to read, as well as what I’ve been able to get them to “give a chance” or “read for me because I want your opinion.”

I feel it’s my responsibility to find more for them.


There’s a huge market for autobiographies and biographies of African-American and Latino people who have experienced the streets and the criminal (in)justice system. My teens read biographies by Jimmy Santiago, Luis Rodriguez, Chef Jeff Henderson, Cupcake Brown, and Ishmael Beah, all of whom they’ve also met, and other adult authors. There’s also definitely a demand for self-published memoirs among reluctant readers—teens as well as adults, incarcerated or not. (For some great suggestions, see “Recommended reading,” on the opposite page.) People are reluctant to read for many reasons: some because they’ve never seen themselves reflected in a book and, therefore, don’t connect with the characters; others because they only want to read a certain type of book, such as a “true story.” The genre or type of book is more important to them than skillful editing, perfect pacing, positive reviews, correct spelling, and the rest.

More than 300,000 titles were self-published in 2011, according to R. R. Bowker, so finding self-published memoirs that work isn’t a straightforward process, at least for me. It’s a combination of researching leaders and speakers in the field, finding out if they have a book, searching on Amazon, asking someone who knows someone, authors sending me their books, getting a tip from someone who’s sitting next to me on the bus or at a local bookstore—there are seemingly infinite ways.

My first priority is to find books for my marginalized and, frankly, ostracized community that they can relate to, that inspire them, that reflect their experience in our society. Most important is that the story gets told and heard. I do have standards that, in general, relate to the story and the ability of the author to have some form of reflection. I don’t care as much about how a story is told, or—shocking to many—about grammar, spelling, or lack of editing. Those are details that are extremely important in our white, middle-class publishing community, which places a high value on the written word. Other cultures and communities have an oral tradition and care more about story and communication than precision.

One of the most heated debates on the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Quick Picks Committee in 2009 was over the book Teenage Bluez III (Life Changing Books, 2009). While it contains fantastic stories not found elsewhere and was definitely a “Quick Pick” for my teens and other young people across the country, it didn’t make the list. The primary reason? Misspellings and grammatical problems.

Having worked for many years with teens and adults who haven’t learned the “proper” way to communicate, I’ve had to combat massive amounts of trauma from those who’ve given up and are afraid to write even a sentence for fear of having their poor grammar and spelling judged. Editing has its place after the story is told, I always tell my teens, in hopes that they won’t censor themselves because of a lack of confidence in spelling. It’s the same for books. The basic point of a book—and, indeed, of the written word—is to communicate. Yes, I personally loved reading Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham, 2006), but in this case, the comma really doesn’t matter because even without it almost all of my students would read the title as if the comma were there: that’s their experience. People read books to garner meaning, not to have a grammatical experience. (OK, most people, you word phreaks!)

While the amount of time spent browsing and the payoff of coming across a perfect or even good book isn’t high, you never know when you might find a gem. I came across Jerry McGill’s Dear Marcus: Speaking to the Man Who Shot Me (iUniverse, 2009) and was intrigued before Lorrie Moore wrote about it in May 2011 in the New York Times Book Review, before Spiegel & Grau picked it up, and before I gave it a starred review in SLJ (

SLJ1210w FT CHENY3 Gangs, Drugs, and Renewal: Self published Memoirs Offer Hope to Troubled TeensOne of the main downsides to self-published books is that professional journals tend not to review them. Publishers Weekly has a column that reviews 25 such books each quarter (it began in August 2010), but charges a $149 fee for reviews. Other sources that review these books include Kirkus Indie, which charges $400 to $550 to review, and Blue Ink Review, which charges $395 to $495. None of them guarantees a positive review. David Streitfeld just wrote a terrific article about paid reviews in the New York Times: “The Best Books Money Can Buy”. Don’t miss the comments section.

Clearly, traditional publishers do sometimes pick up self-published titles. Dear Marcus is the most lovely example. And in what might be one of the first self-published memoirs, Life of William Grimes,the Runaway Slave, picked up by Oxford University Press and edited by William Andrews and Regina Mason, Mason’s ancestor wrote about his experience as a fugitive slave in 1825—before Frederick Douglass.

Librarians are in a unique position, and it’s up to us to encourage our administrators to purchase books through nontraditional distribution channels. Take a chance on an author whom your patrons might love to meet and who they feel inspired by. Librarians are the ultimate in terms of our capacity for unbiased professional reviews. I do believe it’s up to us to research and provide books for the public—and not just the middle-class, mainstream public.

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