Starred Reviews or Award Winners. But……

Posted: August 5, 2013 in Book Reviews, On Our Minds


kidness for weakness Pick of the Day: Kindness for WeaknessHere is the School Library Journal starred review of Shawn Goodman’s new book. Shawn is or was a teacher in a Juvenile Hall, so I am sure that he knows what he is talking about. Indeed, he says the book is based on events that he witnessed.

There is no doubt this is a great book and a good read. However, I wonder if  this is the kind of book that ADULTS love and teens think are just OK. (Honestly, many of the books I love may fall into this category).

star Pick of the Day: Kindness for WeaknessGOODMAN, Shawn. Kindness for Weakness. 272p. Delacorte. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-385-74324-2; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-99102-8; ebook $10.99. ISBN 978-0-307-98207-0. 
Gr 8 Up
–In this gut-wrenching narrative of loneliness and anger, disillusion and hope, 15-year-old James desperately wants to reconnect with his estranged older brother, Louis, and agrees to deliver drugs to several clients. When he is arrested, he is abandoned by Louis and sent to a juvenile detention facility where intimidation, abuse, and violence among guards and inmates are daily occurrences. As James struggles to find his own voice and reconcile his feelings about his negligent brother and mother, he begins to realize that everyone can make choices about how they live and treat others. James is comforted by letters from a favorite English teacher, reading Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, and the encouragement of a guard who teaches him to lift weights. In a climactic confrontation, he sheds his passive demeanor and attacks a cruel guard who is relentlessly punishing a gay inmate friend. In retaliation, James is brutally beaten by two guards. The unexpected intervention of a staff nurse brings paramedics who airlift James to a hospital and to a “second chance.” Despite the harsh, stark circumstances of his broken home and the upstate New York detention center, James becomes more than a survivor. His nonaggressive disposition provokes contempt but enables him to see more clearly vulnerabilities and injustices around him. Like Shavonne in Goodman’s Something Like Hope (Delacorte, 2010), James must set his own course in life and find supportive adults. Gripping action, gritty dialogue, vivid characters, and palpable tension permeate the brief chapters of James‘s powerful, honest, compelling narrative.–Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC

My volunteer loved it, and she and her son both read it til late in the evening so they could finish it.  I read this book over the weekend.  If I weren’t jaded by working in a detention facility and been fully frustrated and disappointed in trying to find books for the kids, I’d probably agree with the review writer, my volunteer and her son.

Maybe it’s because my kids are so dang hard. And I mean this. When I  went to Seattle Juvenile Hall the kids were reading stuff my kids think is weak and wouldn’t read .

So far my kids have not picked up the book.  Here is what I imagine are going to be my student’s complaints about the book:

• It’s slow going, especially at the beginning, with a lot of interior dialogue, which translates to a lack of action.

• James isn’t street wise. (On the other hand, he’s only 15, so I could give him a break; on the other hand, my 15 year olds are in here, some looking at life sentences). Sure James  has a hard life, but he is a nerd – he goes to school and he likes school and he only gets involved in drug dealing for two days before he’s caught and sent to juvie. Not necessarily a relatable character for my hardened youth.

• He’s a white kid. <Sigh> Ok, my readers wouldn’t say this, but:  the white characters weren’t introduced as white but the black and latino characters were introduced by their color.  Meaning it’s from a white perspective. That is irritating to me. This is probably one of my number one irritations. I much prefer a book that doesn’t mention color. Sharon Draper is an expert at this.  Or mentions color only if’ it’s important to the story or is a descriptor that is applied equally.

• The stuff about the Sea Wolf was hard to follow. Not because of the writing, but just because it is outside of many of the kids realm of experience.

• The gay stuff. For most of my youth homophobia is alive and well. I have had kids put a book down at the MENTION of a gay person, and this one has a main character that befriends a gay guy. Don’t get me wrong,  it’s fantastic to have a clear view of gay people being bullied. But will my kids, who want ACTION and their lives reflected,  hang in there with it? Enough to get to the part of the ACTION and the stuff that they WILL relate to regardless of gay/straight/nerd/white etc?

There are several “quieter” type books that do well with prompting by me (and as a last resort for the kids who would rather be reading some ACTION with some people of color). A couple titles that fall into this category: Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin, We Were Here by Matt de La Pena, and Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. The kids  – those that finish these books –  do end up liking them.

I’m curious what other people think. Am I being too hard and picky on books and authors? I’m sure I am. Well, I guess that’s why I’m a librarian, book reviewer and critic…..

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