Archive for the ‘On Our Minds’ Category

I haven’t been blogging lately as the nature of this blog is changing. To what? I am not sure, although today I am compelled to write.

Today I did my first act of successful witnessing.

Two black women  had been pulled over by the police.

I pulled up beside them, unrolled my window and asked if they wanted a witness. The driver said yes. I parked my car (illegally) and got out of the car with my cell phone. I kept a “respectful” distance away from the police and also from the women in the car.

The woman in the passenger seat looked to me as if she was having a  traumatized response. She was having difficulty breathing and was shaking uncontrollably.  I moved a little bit closer, slowly –  (after all, I am white, and I could be triggering her as well) and asked if they needed anything. The driver said “water” and reached out some money to me. I did not take the money. I went and got the water and gave to the woman. The driver said to me: “with all that is going on, we just don’t know, we just don’t know” inbetween trying to assist the passenger with breathing and calming. She said to me, “we will feel better when the cop leaves.” I moved away from their car.

The cop asked, “can I speak to you for a moment.” I moved towards him so that he would not come towards the women. He said, “she appears to be having a panic attack.” I said, “Absolutely. Are you done? I  think it would assist if you were able to leave.” He got in his car and left.

The driver then asked the passenger if she wanted to get out. I opened the door and held out my hand to help her to get out of the car, which was really difficult given how scared she was. She said, “hold me, hold me” and I reached out to hug her but realized within two seconds that she was not able to relax with me. By that time the driver was there and was able to hold her and calm her down. The driver also talked with me a lot about their fear, and I listened.

The passenger calmed down. Not totally, but enough that she was able to stop shaking. Her eyes were red. Her skin was clammy. I say these things because that was how it was when I left.  Totally traumatized. I asked if they needed anything else in the moment or if there was anything else I could do for them.

In case people don’t know or understand I want to break down the privilege part: 1. I was able to witness. 2. I was able to be calm around the cop because I personally have not had negative experiences with cops. 3. I was treated with respect from the cop. 4. I was able to leave and feel as if I were making a difference and that my day was richer for the experience. 5. I was not harassed or penalized in any way for parking illegally. 6, 7, 8, 9.  I’m sure there are even more ways I am not yet aware of how much privilege I had in this interaction. These points are not given, are never if rarely the experience of my friends that are people of color in their interactions with the police. This is white privilege.

If a white person had been a driver and needed help would they have had their wits about them enough to offer money for what was needed? The fact that this woman offered me money in the midst of what must have been her own fear and trauma, the fear and trauma of her loved one, and the legacy of trauma she and her people have experienced from those in “authority”  not to mention the  basic hassle and frustration of being pulled over and given a ticket shows her amazing skill and resilience in the face of a huge amount of stress.

White people do not have this stress and trauma. This is privilege.

Out of the entire experience the fact that she offered me money is what I keep coming back to. I am not at all surprised by it, but it touched me at a deep level. I honestly think if I were in the same situation I wouldn’t have thought to offer money in the moment (maybe after, when the person brought the water). This is itself speaks volumes about my privilege and entitlement, not to mention my assumption that people have enough money on them to buy a bottle of water.

Her offer of the money for the water speaks volumes. It said, “I don’t want anything for free. I just want to be treated like a normal human being.”


Listen to this terrific  presentation about why we need diverse books, in case you don’t already know, or want to feel validated and reinspired:


“When I said I was bored my mom told me to go read a book but I didn’t because I thought books were boring. In school I didn’t’ really read, I just skimmed the words. But since I’ve been here (Alameda County Juvenile Hall), for four months, I’ve read a good 6 books: Letter to an Incarcerated Brother (Hill Harper), Sister Souljah, Straight Out of East Oakland (Rev. Harry Williams), Buck (MK Asante), an autobiography of Tupac Shakur. I’ve even been reading the dictionary! It’s the most I’ve every read – I never finished a book before. The books give me education and space to be somewhere else. They’ve opened my mind and  opened my vocabulary!”  – Brendon S. 


I love this article for many, many reasons. Look at the cover of this book, the Girl Who Swallowed the Sun. It’s beautiful! How many covers do you see that is the  full face of a dark skinned person? I could probably count them on one hand. That is a terrible, terrible thing for the world. Thank you, Zetta, for changing the world.

Zetta came to visit the girls last Saturday, and it was delightful. The girls, brown and black and one white, enthusiastically participated. They sat on top of  the desks (after telling me adamantly that they were NOT going to sit in a circle), picked up the books they wanted, listened to Zetta, talked about reading, writing and what they were good at, and loved every minute of it. One of the girls said she forgot that probation staff was in the room. That says it all!

By Zetta Elliott in School Library Journal  on March 16, 2015

Zetta_coverI 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.


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.

Zetta_last bunnySince 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.


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.


In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View CultureKẏra 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 openminded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won’t add a book to their collection (many don’t consider self-published books at all).


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.”


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.

Great article and good list of books – not really perfect for the teens I serve, but important to have handy. ~ Amy

By Erin E. Moulton at School Library Journal

SLJ1411w FT MetalHealths Bibliotherapy for Teens: Helpful Tips and Recommended Fiction

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.


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 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.


“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.

Moulton Erin E Contrib Web Bibliotherapy for Teens: Helpful Tips and Recommended FictionErin E. Moulton is a teen librarian at the Derry (NH) Public Library and author ofChasing the Milky Way (Penguin Random House, 2014).


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SLJ1411w FT MetalHealth SB1 Bibliotherapy for Teens: Helpful Tips and Recommended Fiction



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)

*also depression


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)


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)

SLJ1411w FT MetalHealth SB2 Bibliotherapy for Teens: Helpful Tips and Recommended Fiction


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


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)

SLJ1411w FT MetalHealth SB3 Bibliotherapy for Teens: Helpful Tips and Recommended Fiction


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)


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)

*also anxiety

**also depression

***includes self-harm/injury


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)

*also PTSD


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.


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 – (He currently lives in NY). Here is his blog:

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 entrUnknown-1ance. “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 imagesagain. 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. (more…)

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 anUnknown 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.

actualcover-filteredAn award-winning wildlife conservationist, Greg Cummings achieved remarkable success protecting gorilla populations in the wild, through community-based initiatives in East and Central Africa. In a career spanning two decades, he personally raised over ten million dollars for this work, and formed enduring relationships with the Gates foundation, World Bank, European Union, UNESCO, and US Fish & Wildlife – to name just a few. What really motivates him is a vision of a strong, indigenous movement for development in Africa – owned and managed by Africans for the good of future generations. Since 2009 he has been a director of WildLIGHT, a registered charity in Uganda. More about the author…



I can never have enough books in my library written by, for, and about people of color, especially those that have grown up or lived in the margins of society. There are a huge number of people of color that have important stories to tell and are self-publishing their books due to the numerous issues with the traditional publishing world which, in part, reflects the racial biases in our society. And remember—the extremely important discussion about the lack of diversity in children’s books only accounts for books published by big publishers, which skews this reality—there are actually many self- and small  and alternative press published books for people of color.

Mim Eichler Rivas is a ghostwriter of bestselling books that are on all of our shelves—Antwone Fisher’sFinding Fish (), Chris Gardner’s The Pursuit of Happyness (Harper), Dwyane Wade’s  A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball (Morrow), Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon (Univ. of CA Press), and my personal favorite, the one with her name on it, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse (Morrow). Her husband Victor Rivas Rivers is the spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, as well as an actor (Blood In/Blood Out, The Mask of Zorro), and has written his own book, A Private Family Matter (), detailing his abuse at the hands of a mentally ill father. My teens love these adult books, which are staples on my shelves.

I have a fantasy of having a collective of ghostwriters that would write for/with gangsters (or ex-gangsters, as the case may be). Yeah, I know it’s far-fetched: ghostwriters are already overworked, underpaid, and grossly unacknowledged for their services, and many of the self-published authors are more than happy with the independence that brings and the acknowledgement they already receive in the non-white publishing world. I can still dream. Kids in the YA Underground really want gritty, action- filled reads, and my fantasy ghostwriter could help transform some of the vitally important stories featured in today’s column into books that would fly off the shelves.

PaccButler Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundPacc Butler’s book From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member is the top pick this week—a standout in terms of the writing, message, and the author’s ability to tell a story that is real and action-packed, while also showing the twisted thinking/behavior that was a result of the extensive abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and multiple family members. Born to a 17-year-old crack addicted mother and a 36-year-old off-the-charts violent father, Pacc left home at age 16. He joined the gang that was responsible for the murder of Yummy (Robert Sandifar), which Pacc recounts without any boasts or glorification. A dark cover with an unintentional distorted image, small typeface, and no white space are among the downsides of this self-published book.

Another standout also of interest to my teens is a new anthology by the students in POPS—Pain of the Prison System—an afterschool program in Venice, CA. Runaway Thoughts focuses on the angst of having an incarcerated family member or friend. There are a lot of self-published anthologies out there, but this one is unique due to the topics being covered. The book is being redesigned so may not be available again in print until later in the year.

What’s Wrong With You! (What You, Your Children, and Our Students Need To Know About My 15 Year Imprisonment From Age 20 to 35) is well written, follows a logical time line, and isn’t repetitive, but could use an editor in terms of focus—who is the intended audience for the book?  It’s not really “scared straight” in any preachy way, thank goodness, but more of an honest accounting of the daily inanities, filth, pressures, and stresses of living in small cages with mentally ill and serious offenders. This is what “doing time” ultimately means. Author Omar Yamini was an accessory to a crime; i.e. he was present but did not actually commit the crime. It is a miracle that anyone can come out of that situation with any kind of sanity, and it’s clear that Yamini did. It’s an important book and I will continue to have it on my shelves, yet the cumbersome and confusing title reflects the lack of focus and has killed any interest in it for my sensitive and defensive teen readers who would rarely if ever pick up a book with “What is Wrong With You” as a title.allcaughtup Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Underground

Jamila Davis’s She’s All Caught Up has a fantastic cover with a fly girl, money, and a cool car; unfortunately, it’s slow-going on the inside, covering the details of her life from a very young age, leading up to her arrest and the more gritty action-filled moments in the last 75 pages of the book. Some kids are definitely going to be interested, but others won’t hang in there that long. Davis hashighprice1 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Underground created the “Voices of Consequences” series for incarcerated women to tell their stories and that’s a great thing. Michelle Miles’s The High Price I Had to Pay 2, which came out of the Voices series, is nice and small, and an easy, straightforward read. At 25, she was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic drugs, an alarming sentence for a non-violent first time drug offender.

TransformingPainToPower BookJacket 198x300 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundDaniel Beaty grew up in a home environment replete with addiction and incarceration. His father was a heroin addict and dealer, and was constantly in and out of prison. His older brother continued in his father’s tradition. Beaty has written two books, both of which are a must for every YA urban library even though they aren’t YA. His adult title, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential (), focuses on  overcoming life’s difficulties. In it, Beaty’s personal and family stories are used as life lessons andknockknock Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Undergroundtools for transformation. His spoken word poem “Knock, Knock” is powerful; his picture book based on the poem is more quiet.  The book doesn’t address incarceration directly—the father is simply gone one day, a scenario many young men experience. Watercolor illustrations and collages by Brian Collier show the emotional journey of the young man through his losses. Both titles were produced by mainstream publishers.

NewCovers 300x154 Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA UndergroundSpeaking of covers, (which I always am) I am dismayed, well actually, horrified—that Simone Elkeles’s “Perfect Chemistry: series () covers Perfect Chemistry FINAL cover Self Publishing, Ghostwriting for Gangsters, and Cover Reaction | YA Undergroundhave been redesigned. This is truly a tragedy for our readers who love these books, and feel seen and reflected. Buy the old ones while you can. These covers are hot and sexy. This could be the death knell for reluctant readers and those in the gritty margins.

BEATY, Daniel. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me. illus. by Bryan Collier. Little, Brown, 2013. 40p. Tr $18. ISBN 9780316209175.

BEATY, Daniel. Transforming Pain to Power Unlock Your Unlimited Potential. Penguin/Berkley. 2014. 225p. Tr $19.95 ISBN 9780425267486.

BUTLER, Pacc. From God’s Monster to the Devil’s Angel: Life of a Chicago Gang Member. CreateSpace Independent Publishing. 2014. 162p. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781494771669.

DAVIS, Jamila T. She’s All Caught Up. Voices International Publications. 2013. 330p. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780985580735

MILES, Michelle. The High Price I Had to Pay 2: Sentenced to 30 Years as a Non-Violent First Time Offender. Voices International Publications. 2013. 56p. pap. $7.99. ISBN 97800991104109.

PANAGIOTAKOS, Kalliope, ed. Venice High School Students. Runaway Thoughts: The Pain of the Prison System Anthology. POPS the Club. 2014. 183p. pp. $20. ISBN 9781495113598.

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. Proper Perception. 205p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780991574605.

By Jennifer Sweeney and Amy Cheney

Youth in institutions across the country often have negative past experiences with books and reading, which in turn influence their literacy skill level. While there are many causes and reasons for this negative past experience, librarians (and others) can and do turn this experience around by matching a kid to the perfect book for them. Do you remember that perfect book for you? Maybe it was when you were a preschooler, teen or even an adult. In general, once someone has that positive experience, a real transformation occurs around reading and literacy.

I myself  (Amy) have been privilege to this life changing moment for thousands of youth, watching them blossom into excited readers and participants in the world of books and reading.

If that were ALL librarians did for youth, it’d be enough.  But there is more. Libraries do tremendous things for the youth in our facilities.  Not only are there books to read, but computers, ipads, and resources.  Kids can listen to music, play games, get a book on tape, enroll into and get started on college coursework, register to vote, send birthday cards to family members, or meet a famous author, musician, or hero in person.  (If this doesn’t sound like your library, please call us, we can help.)  We have kids learning many new things when they walk through our doors: Russian. Career options. How to draw. A new or different perspective. A sense of themselves as a reader or someone who is good at or likes to read. The library is the place where youth can participate democratically in the world of readers and writers.

With the estimated reading level of incarcerated youth averaging around 5th grade, what we want, of course, is to get them reading and increase their literacy skills. We understand the power of reading and the power of the ideas that we provide access to.  However, the most important thing about libraries is they provide a fundamental and profound  experience for incarcerated youth: Free Choice.

  The key to increasing literacy is to provide a place where kids are free to choose what they want to read. Free and voluntary choice of reading material has been proven to increase literacy, and is cited by some as THE most important way to improve literacy.* If our collections are full of books that express the range of problems and struggles and hopes that are so central to our kids’ lives, our kids will read.  If our kids know we respect their right to choose, and respect their choices, they will read.  If they have a choice, they can also choose not to read a book that isn’t right for them – whether it’s too scary, too depressing, or any other thing that doesn’t serve their needs. We see it happen every day.

Sometimes kids just need to escape their problems for a while; the library is a safe place where a kid can get away in a comic book or a funny story.  We know our kids are curious, and they want books that enable them to discover and explore different worlds.  Our kids are growing up too, and they need to learn about themselves, their minds, and their bodies.

They need to understand their lives, and connect with stories that validate their experiences.  The library is a place where our kids can safely connect with others who have experienced the violence they have experienced, gotten hooked on drugs like they have, and have struggled to find answers.  The library is where kids can learn how to change their lives, by experiencing the lives of other people who have been in similar situations and found ways to overcome similar problems.

We know that our kids need to learn how to care about each other, their surroundings, and property.  The library is the community space where we demonstrate respect for books and responsibility for their care, all within the context of free choice. While we spend time talking about respecting books  —  the importance of taking care of the books because of their life-changing power for all of us — we stress the honor system.  Books, reading, and the entire library experience need to be free from anything punitive, to allow youth to choose how they interact with the library.

The conversations we have with our kids about what they are reading reinforce the message too, as do the authors and speakers we bring in to talk to our kids.  The power of meeting and talking to real people who have struggled, survived, and written about it is extraordinary.  We have seen firsthand the change in our kids as they realize they are not alone and that their lives have value.  That there is hope.

We provide the guidance and setting for safe space for meaningful conversations about their thoughts, opinions and reactions to  what they are reading, and their motivation to challenge themselves to move out of comfort zones both literal and figurative.  As librarians, we see firsthand the positive effect free choice has, on the kids’ motivation and excitement to read, and thus their concrete and active choice to change their lives.

The library is where our kids can choose to take that step to succeed. This is our central goal, as librarians: to provide a place for our kids to choose. To read what they want to, to find their interests, to take independent and freely chosen steps.  As librarians, our job is to provide the space for this to happen.

This is the relevance of the library in our facilities.



Jennifer Sweeney, MSLS, PhD teaches in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA and in the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University.  Dr. Sweeney was the 2010 recipient of the American LIbrary Association Diversity Research Grant investigating the nature and scope of juvenile detention library services in a national survey.  Her book, Literacy: A Way Our For At-Risk Youth, portrays in detail the unique issues and challenges in juvenile detention library services and recommends library services tailored to helping teens improve decision making and cognitive skills.   Earlier, she held research positions with the University of California, Davis and UCLA.  She currently provides program evaluation and planning services to libraries and nonprofits.

* Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

In a study comparing reading comprehension for students in free reading programs against students in traditional reading programs, 94 percent of the students in FVR did as well as or better than those in traditional programs. (p.3)

Boys in a free reading program in a reform school for one year increased reading comprehension scores on the SAT 18% while a control group increased scores only 8%. (p. 4)

“In-school free reading studies and “out of school” self-reported free voluntary reading studies show that more reading results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, and grammatical development.” p. 17

Numerous studies show that students prefer free reading to traditional language arts activities.  p. 30

Children who engage in self-selected reading  say they enjoy reading more than students whose books are assigned to them. p.33


Neri pic2 600x446 How Author G. Neri and Librarian Kimberly DeFusco Changed a Life

G. Neri, author of Chess Rumble (Lee & Low, 2007), and Kimberly DeFusco, a Tampa school librarian, helped turn Raequon P., a young at-risk non-reader, into a Shakespeare-loving poet. (As told by the author, the librarian, and the poet.)

G. Neri: In 2009, Kim DeFusco, the media specialist at Young Middle Magnet school here in Tampa, invited me to come to her school to give a talk. She told me about one particular student, Raequon, who loved my first book Chess Rumble, a free-verse graphic novella about a troubled boy whose life is turned around by the game of chess. Raequon was dying to meet me. But like many kids in his situation, come the day of my visit, he was not to be found.

“He’s been suspended,” Kim said, as if it were a common occurrence with him. It was. She was such a believer in this kid, though, that she kept sending me updates about him because my books seemed to be having such an impact on his life.

I’ve been lucky to hear stories like this from librarians and teachers all over the country. Many times, I’ve even seen first-hand my books help turn non-readers into readers. Literally. I’ve seen boys in the back of the room who’ve never read a book in their lives pick up one of mine (usually drawn in by the bold art of Jesse Watson or Randy DuBurke), and by the end of the day, I hear from the librarian something like “Remember that disruptive kid sitting in the back? He just finished reading your book.”

That kind of reaction means a lot to me. It happened to me back when I was one of those kids in fifth grade. I was a visual person who loved to draw, but once pictures were no longer part of the books I was seeing, text became a wall I could not overcome.

chessrumblePLUS 600x402 How Author G. Neri and Librarian Kimberly DeFusco Changed a Life

That is, until my teacher put The Phantom Tollbooth (Random, 1961) in my hands and the whole idea of what a book was went out the window. It was a revelation. That teacher recognized who I was and had matched me with a book that would speak to me. That was the start of a long and powerful journey into reading and, eventually, writing.

It’s this triangle of change among author, librarian/teacher, and student that seems to affect so many young lives I’ve come across. I’ve always believed that for every non-reader out there is a book just waiting to be discovered. And often, it’s a teacher or librarian who facilitates that match-up.

For me, a book without a facilitator is just a quaint collection of words gathering dust on a shelf.  For many of the kids I meet, a book only falls into their hands because a librarian or teacher made the connection. For some kids, these books mean so much, they want to keep them. Sometimes sustenance comes in many forms. If you’re hungry, you might steal food. If you’re hungry for something that speaks to you—it might be a book you hold precious. I understand that hunger.

Among the librarians and kids I’ve met, Kim’s relationship to Raequon stood out. Here’s why.

Kimberly DeFusco: I first met Raequon in 2009 when he came into our grade six Intensive Reading Class. He was a very vocal non-reader, often a distraction to other students, and a behavioral handful. One day, I brought Raequon back to my office to talk to him about his behavior. I became agitated because he was looking at the wall and not paying any attention. I harshly asked, “Is there something up there more interesting than listening to me?”

He was looking at a picture of me posing with you during one of your visits to his school. He asked me, “Isn’t that G. Neri?”

I told him that indeed it was. He was so excited to see I had a picture taken with G. Neri that he began telling me how much he loved Chess Rumble and that he’d read it over and over throughout fifth grade. All of a sudden, it was like I was talking to a completely different Raequon. He lit up, talking about how he related to the character Marcus and how he was jealous of me for having met G. Neri.

Over the next couple years, Raequon continued to be a very vocal non-reader with his class, but would also come to the library on his own and ask for books, hiding them in his binder or bag and never bringing them out in class.

When I convinced him to read You Hear Me?: Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys, edited by Betsy Franco (Candlewick, 2000), he became obsessed with poetry books. He was constantly checking out huge poetry anthologies. I had a hard time keeping enough of them.

One day, he came to me and asked if I had anything by Shakespeare. He’d read a poem in one of the anthologies, and he liked it. I asked him which poem it was and he said something like, “I don’t know exactly, ‘cause it was hard to read, but that man really loved that woman–more than you should love someone. It was good.”

We didn’t have any Shakespeare anthologies. One of our English teachers brought in her Norton Shakespeare Anthology and gave it to him.

During the spring of his sixth grade, we were able to host you—Greg—again and Raequon was so excited to meet you. I only learned later that he’d saved his “snack” money from home for a couple weeks in order to buy a copy of Chess Rumble for you to sign. I took a picture of you guys together and he kept that in his school binder for years.

Sometime during his sixth grade year, Raequon began to write poetry. By seventh grade, he had two notebooks full before he ever told me that he was writing. He told me not to say anything, because he didn’t want anyone to know.

He said that when he was in elementary school he did well in school, but that he was bullied for being smart and skinny. He said, “Smart white kids have it easy. It’s not cool to be black and smart, and I can’t stop being black.”

He had made a conscious decision to not be “smart” in middle school so he wouldn’t be bullied. He put on this tough-guy, joker persona and started goofing off in school. He did not want anyone to know he was a poet. All during seventh grade, Raequon was a huge behavior concern with referrals in the double digits for classroom disruptions. He was going through a lot of distress in his home life and was acting out more and more at school. A few of us who saw his potential had a big challenge in advocating for him that year.

During eighth grade, Raequon had the opportunity to talk with you in person. Not long after that, he began to open up to his classmates about his writing. He shared poems with his teachers and allowed them to display them in class.

He became dedicated to getting into Blake High School’s creative writing program. He put his pain and joy on paper and was not afraid to share it with others. Raequon’s home life was often not stable, and he stopped keeping that to himself. He wrote about the struggles inside himself; trying to make decisions about what was the right path when his role models weren’t positive. He wrote about school, about love, about heartbreak, about family.

Through his writing, some of his teachers began to understand more about Raequon and had more patience with him. It was a transformation. No joke, when he showed me his high school acceptance paper, he had watery eyes. He gave me a hug and said, “They want me.” His next sentence was “Will you tell G. Neri?”

He’s gone from getting Ds and Fs to As and Bs. Of course, I know there are a lot of kids out there who struggle like Raequon. What makes me smile is that there are also lots of librarians, teachers, and authors looking out for them.

Raequon: In fifth grade, our librarian picked out a book for us and had it out on the table. I was looking at it like, Hmmm. Chess. I don’t want to read it! It’s about chess! And she was like, “Read it. You’ll like it.” So we started reading Chess Rumble, and actually, I did like it! I was like Oh…this is dope! And we had to do a report on it, and we were talking about it and talking about it, and I read it a few more times, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

So when I came [to Young Magnet Middle school] in sixth grade, I was in the library for the first time and I saw a familiar cover and I was like wait, wait wait—this can’t be the book. And I found it, and I was like Oooohhhhh! It’s the book! And I went over to Ms. DeFusco, and I told her it was my favorite book. She said something like, “Oh, yeah, I was reading it at the beach and was so into it, I forgot to turn over and it gave me a sunburn—that’s how hot this book is.”

Later on, when Greg came here to talk to us and I finally got to see him in person, I started thinking, well, if he could do it, maybe I could do it, and that’s when I started writing. It took me a long time before I showed my writing to my best friend and he was shocked, like, “Wow, are you serious?” But later he was like, “This is good.”

People are surprised when I say I write poems. They say, “You don’t look like a writer.” Well, what does a writer look like?

G. Neri: Hearing those comments from Kim and Raequon makes me realize that books can open doors, act as stepping stones toward greater understanding, offer moments of clarity. For me, it’s amazing that one librarian could take such an interest in one student, even after graduation. On the flip side, Raequon would probably be shocked to hear that he’s been an inspiration to us both. We writers hope that something we create will be meaningful for someone—inspire them, enlighten them, intrigue them, make them think. Librarians hope for the chance to make a difference through books—planting seeds that will spark an imagination, making connections that will grow into informed minds. When you hear back from teens that what you do or say actually makes a difference, believe me, it keeps us going.

G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor–winning author of Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (Lee & Low, 2010). He received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his first book, Chess Rumble. His upcoming books, Knockout Games (Lerner), a YA novel, and Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (Random), a free-verse picture book, will be out this summer.

Kimberly DeFusco is the media specialist at Young Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

Raequon P. is a creative writing student at Blake High School of the Arts in Tampa.