Originally Published at National Center for Youth in Custody
Alan, you travel around the country as a literacy specialist, specializing in assisting teachers to engage “at risk kids” with the newly heightened academic demands. You also have a new book coming out in May which I’ve read and which I LOVE. I know the 250 kids I serve in the detention facility are also going to love this book.
Tell us about your new book, Caged Warrior. What motivated you to write it?
I was providing professional development for educators in Detroit Public Schools not too long after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Detroit’s troubled public schools “ground zero” for education in the United States. His words scorched the teachers, demoralized the students and generally devalued all the great kids and hard-working educators who were busting their butts to make a difference against immense odds in an exceptionally tough environment. Now, does Detroit have issues? Oh heck yeah! But does Philly, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, St. Louis, Los Angeles and on and on and on have many of the same issues? Of course they do.
Part of the issues do involve having books that will engage our readers.
Detroit inspired the setting for Caged Warrior. The idea of doing another gritty, pull-no-punches book has been on my mind since so many YA readers and teachers have asked me when I was going to do a follow up to one of my most popular books, Homeboyz.
Caged Warrior has a lot of elements that youth are going to be drawn to. First of all, the cover is great. Then there is a protagonist who is super tough, and who also above all else cares about his younger sister. He has a Dad who is using him and a home life that is out of control. And then there’s SPORTS!!
Being a huge sports fan, the phenomenal popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) enabled me to cook up a teenage hero who is ferocious on one hand and absolutely vulnerable on the other. I wanted to show the complexity of kids trying to fight their way out with adults trying to help them do so – while other adults were seeking to oppress the underclasses through crime, corruption, violence and drugs. We live in an America gone insane. It’s all there in Caged Warrior.
And the fight scenes are terrific, and will no-doubt about it engage our reluctant readers.
The fight scenes took me a long time to craft because I had to make sure they were tight, they pushed the plot forward and they could hold up to the scrutiny of readers who might know a lot about the sport.
On the other hand I don’t think you need to be an MMA fan to enjoy the novel. That’s because all of my books are character driven. It’s an underdog story about a good kid in a bad situation looking to get out… and do it in a way that leaves him with dignity and honor. Personally, I run into kids like this all the time in my world as an author/educator. Their stories need to be told.
You have worked extensively with at-risk youth, particularly teens. Tell us a little about your experiences – what you have learned in working with this population.
I am of the greatest belief that kids are kids are kids. Some live lives plagued by guns, crime and drugs, others live lives plagued by BMW’s, parental helicoptering and yep, drugs. All of them struggle with issues of modern day adolescence. Perhaps my own experience as a teen who raced too fast down life’s highway built up a certain empathy for these kids. Or maybe it’s my desire to be there for them in the way that I always wished someone was there for me. Either way, hardscrabble kids and I get along. Partly because I don’t BS them, partly because I respect them, partly because I listen to them and partly because I know all of us can use a shared smile.
Also, I challenge these kids. Life give you cards, you step up and play them, I say. So many of these kids need a voice in their lives that believes in them more than they believe in themselves yet won’t take any of their nonsense, too.
Ok, but what about how to get them involved with reading???
These come from Random House but I really like them:
- Offer reading choices
- Refrain from being judgmental of students’ reading selections
- Tap into students’ outside interests
- Use shorter, high-interest books
- Link novels to other types of reading materials, such as newspapers, magazines, and nonfiction books
- Read aloud the first chapter of a novel to get readers hooked
- Include a variety of genres
- Instruct students to stop reading a book if it doesn’t interest them by the second chapter
- Allow students to help shape a reading list for the class
- Ask students to suggest books for you to read. Read as many of the books as possible. Let students know when you read their suggestions.
Those are good – especially stop reading if they aren’t engaged by the second chapter. Giving kids permission and choices is a huge part of the battle. And definitely, reading their suggestions and making it an equal playing field. What is the most important thing in reaching struggling and/or reluctant readers?
I think the most critical thing when it comes to reaching struggling and/or reluctant readers is awakening – or reawakening – in them the power, magic and beauty of stories.
The points above help and gives them permission to enjoy reading.
Once that fire in their belly is lit, steering kids towards “commendable literature” becomes a much more achievable task. In our mad rush for test scores, test scores, test scores we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees in terms of what the value of a great book can mean to the life of a young person.
The need for stories is woven into our soul’s DNA much in the same way that the need for water is woven into our physical body’s DNA. Stories hold transformative power. They can inspire, guide, instruct, warn and delight all at the same time. (And much, much more, too.)
Kids who struggle to read and kids who are reluctant to read are often suffering, I believe, from the lack of a special someone who deals in books, a person who knows how to make just the right match between just the right kid and just the right text. Once those matches are made, kids will read.
Of course, we have an assault being launched. Librarians are cut, teachers are slashed, people who peddle in the literary arts are diminished and kicked to curb (of informational text?). Yet despite all this, kids are still eager for stories that capture their imagination, that connect them to the world, or takes them into other solutions in a way that only a book can.
As a California Teacher of the Year winner, what special tricks can you share with the rest of us?
The truth is, I’m just one of many, doing my darnedest to keep up with all the great new titles being published, wrestling with the impact technology is playing on literacy and struggling to pen stories that kids will embrace. At times I feel bowled over, at times I feel overwhelmed and at times I feel just plain down. But I’m a fighter! Why? Because we can’t give up! If this ship is going to go down, I am going to go down with it. After all, at the end of the day we are not doing this for ourselves but rather for the kids and the future of our society. Deep in my heart I believe that the work we are doing collectively is important.
Check out AlanSitomer.com for info about all of Alan’s titles for YA readers.
Here are a few descriptions:
The Hoopster: When Andre Anderson, a basketball loving “hoopster”, is attacked for his beliefs will he take the high road or stoop to vengeance?
Hip-Hop High School: A tour de force of six teens in inner-city L.A. trying to make it and survive through their years as students in a “Hip-Hop High School”.
Homeboyz: When Teddy Anderson’s sister is savagely murdered in a drive-by shooting, to what lengths will T-Bear go to settle the score?
The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez: A first generation Latina is caught between the culture of her familia and the culture of inner-city Los Angeles.