YA Underground: A Different Kind of Rating System
After surveying the kids in my facility, I created the following system to rate the books that they’re reading: one star = Wack, two stars = Bootsy, three stars = Koo, four stars = Clean, and five stars = That book Go! A book that’s “clean” is “real.” A book that “goes” has action. For my readers, a book is ideally both action-packed and real. What makes a book either or both? As usual, it’s not that straightforward, but here’s one attempt to decipher the question.
Survivor by Paul Langan is a new title in the “Bluford” series. Bluford’s definitely “Go.” Featuring a great cover with solidly African-American characters, there’s a lot of action packed into this small book. The story centers around Tarah, who’s vexed that her former abuser and uncle is coming to visit. She’s flashing and takes her stress out on those around her, until she finds a believable and empowering solution. We get to hear her boyfriend’s anxieties too, which keeps it real for both boys and girls. My 15- to 18-year-olds grab the new Bluford titles as soon as I set them on the shelves.
Robinson’s Hood by Jeff Gottesfeld is overall Koo but occasionally slips into the bootsy and wack categories. It has action, and the cover is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time—featuring a boy with a hoodie, graffiti in the background, and a cool, almost 3-D typeface for the title. But it’s not consistently real. Robin is faced with numerous troubles: gangs, drugs, and extortion, to name a few. Believable. But then…. Let me give you an example. The community center is about to close down because of a city inspection (real). When the director finds $25K in an envelope (delivered anonymously), he whoops it up, throwing the bills into the air. Everyone at the community center is laughing, crying, and shouting with happiness. Not a one is grabbing any for themselves. That is wack. So not real. There are a few more places that ring false, which might shatter my kids’ suspension of disbelief, sending the story into the wack category, and there are some easy plot devices that my kids think are bootsy.
My girls brought Pretty Girl 13 by Liz Coley to my attention, having grabbed the galleys off the shelves the moment I put the books out (good cover, good title). They recited every detail of the story – practically page by page, which means for them it had lots of intrigue and action. The last thing that Angie remembers is that she was 13 and on a Girl Scout camping trip. But when she shows up back home, she’s 16. Angie has no recollection of the last three years. It turns out they were pretty grimy, and she developed multiple personalities to cope with them. This is definitely five-star material for my girls, and a great read-alike for those kids that enjoyed Room (Little, Brown, 2012), Living Dead Girl (Simon Pulse, 2009), or A Stolen Life (S & S, 2012). While this is a simplistic version of the story, it’s a good read, and there’s not that much out there about multiple personalities.
There’s just one book that almost created a riot in my library. The kids were sitting there, patiently listening to my library intro. When I was done, all 16 of them rushed the shelf where Sister Souljah’s new (at the time) book Midnight(Pocket, 2010) was. The guards were freaked. Luckily, I had enough copies to go around. Souljah’s newest book, A Deeper Love Inside, creates similar excitement, but it’s totally wack once you get into it. I’ve found several languishing on the shelves in the units. While most of my teens and I agree on the definition of action, the real part gets a little tricky. That’s because in their world, designer clothing, driving Benz’s, having stacks of money, and being famous is “real.” In my world, it’s urban fantasy. In the case of this book, I think even my kids might agree with my definition of unreal, and the action sure is slow. What young girl on the street remains a virgin, avoids detection from authorities, buys roses for $89 a dozen, and ends up in Europe, getting $100K a weekend night for dancing with her clothes on?
Sharon Draper’s Panic starts out with a lot of action. Justin, a young male dancer, is walking down the street when bullies call him a faggot. He doesn’t react until they start dishing his momma, and then he easily lays them out. First chapter: action, breaking stereotypes, realistic. Love it. The rest of the book is real—Diamond is attracted to the allure of fame which lands her with a sexual predator, and Layla is dealing with an abusive boyfriend—but it’s not gritty enough for my teens and is fairly slow in terms of action. Not one of them has even picked it up, much less read it. It’s branded bootsy. Is it because of the cover? A blue butterfly with pins in it? That cover doesn’t go. In contrast, I bet the book will do well with other teens and might even get a starred review.
I had two kids fighting over Sharon McKay’s War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. This book is clean. Clean means it’s tight. Maybe even deep. Almost everyone who has read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone wants to read more on the topic. Kids kidnapped into Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to kill is real—teens living in urban war zones with gang recruitment and compulsory involvement can relate. The book starts out with black-bordered pages of a scene of a boy being told to kill a mother. When the time and place change, it’s signified with white-bordered pages, and we are back before this nightmare began, or on our way out of it. This makes it super-easy to keep track of the story. There’s also a thread about a grandfather who’s looking for his son who was stolen. His story has haunted me for weeks.
Every once in a while I get a rating sheet back that’s filled with outrage. Ezekiel Jones (not his real name) crossed out the rating system and wrote, “Use better terminology! This is ‘pose to be rehabilitation—build these young men’s minds! I beg of you!” and then rated Dave Eggers’s What Is the What as “intellectually stimulating!” Former gangbanger Luis J. Rodriguez’s book, Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts Are Transforming a Community, also fits that description. With beautiful images and stories told through many voices, including those of teens, this book is clean. Librarians and others have a lot to learn about how Rodriquez created a cultural center for the arts in a devastated community.
A book can lack action and still go—that’s because it’s clean, and in this case, clean supersedes go. Juvenile in Justice by Richard Ross “goes hard.” I love that it won an Alex Award and a top 10 ranking from Quick Picks—the committees agree with my teens. Wow! May this happen more and more as libraries continue to respond to the underserved. The stunning photos, stark statistics, and words of the youth (along with the foreword and afterword) truly bring together the “language, plot, style, setting, dialog, characterization, and design” of the Alex Award’s charge. As Ross, quoting Booker T. Washington, in 1896, writes, “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.”
COLEY, Liz. Pretty Girl 13. Harper Collins. March, 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062127372.
DRAPER, Sharon M. Panic. Antheneum Books/S & S. April, 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442408968.
GOTTESFELD, Jeff. Robinson’s Hood. Saddleback, 2013. pap. $8.95. ISNB 9781622500000.
LANGAN, Paul. Survivor. Townsend Press, 2013. pap. $5.95. ISBN 9781591943944.
MCKAY, Sharon E. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. Illus. by Daniel Lafance. Annick Press, 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781554514885.
RODRIGUEZ, Luis J. and Denise M. Sandoval, editor. Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts Are Transforming a Community. Tia Chucha Press. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781882688432.
ROSS, Richard. Juvenile in Justice. Richard Ross Photography, 2012. Tr $30.00. ISBN 9780985510602.
SOULJAH, Sister. A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story. Emily Bestler/Atria, 2013. Tr. $26.99. ISBN 9781439165317.