No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row
Susan Kuklin
ISBN: 0-8050-7950-5
Henry Holt and Company, 2008
Grades 10-12
Non-Fiction/Crime/Incarceration/Biography

It’s a world where teens are sentenced to death row…it’s your world. Read the true story of four boys who are given death sentences.

Summary:

After hearing a talk given by Bryan Stevenson, a defense attorney, about the death penalty, author Susan Kuklin decided to write a book about the death penalty. At first the book was to focus on individuals who had been released from death row, but Kuklin decided to change her approach. No Choirboy explores the lives of four men sentenced to death as teens, two of whom Stevenson represented (Mark and Roy). these accounts are followed by the Jenkins family story; William Jenkins was murdered as a teenager, after his death and during his killer’s trial William’s parents became staunch opponents of the death penalty.

Roy Burgess, Mark Melvin, Nanon Williams, and Napoleon Beazley were all convicted of murder and sentenced to death row, Napoleon Beazley was executed in 2001. Kulkin delves into the past, present, and future of the inmates. She explores inequality in the justice system, the mere existence of death sentences for teens, prison life, and the home and social lives of the teens before incarceration. Kuklin’s final chapter concerns the continual healing process experienced by Williams Jenkins’ family, particularly his younger brother and sister, after his murder.

Critique:

Kuklin is not light with her feelings about the death penalty and the justice system. As many reviewers noted, No Choirboy can feel a little heavy handed. However, as an individual who agrees with Kuklin’s views, I was not overwhelmed by her feelings. No Choirboy is an engaging and emotional glimpse at the lives of those involved in crimes that result in death row sentences. As the prisoners try to move on with life while incarcerated they are faced with depression, violence, etc. These men and the Jenkins family try to move beyond the trauma of the past. Nanon Williams became an author after his sentencing, writing about legal injustices, while Mark Melvin is a resident artist in his prison.

Curriculum Ties:

No Choirboy could find a place in a Political Science curriculum or in a Journalism course. This could be a useful text for a Creative Non-Fiction lesson.

Controversy:

Violence, particularly murder; sexual assault; crime; incarceration/prison life.

Refer challengers to reviews or other materials about the prison system.

Awards/Reviews:

American Library Association’s Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2009

“Her [Kuklin's] latest title, about individuals who received death-row sentences while they were teenagers, is another direct, compassionate, and eyeopening inquiry….[I]t is a searing and provocative account that will touch teens’ most fundamental beliefs and questions about violence, punishment, our legal and prison systems, and human rights.” – Booklist
“…[W]hile the book is neither comprehensive nor balanced in its treatment of the issues, it is remarkably successful at putting human faces on them, while raising the point that punishment often has as much to do with race, class, prejudice, and compromise as it does with justice. This eye-opening account will likely open minds and hearts, too…” – The Horn Book Magazine

Booktalking:

Roy’s reflection on having a death sentence as a kid, pages 4 to 6.

About the Author:

Susan Kuklin is the author of nine non-fiction books for young adults, and many others for children. Intending to be an actress, Kuklin attended NYU’s acting school. Then she began taking photographs, leading her to photo journalism, where she got her start as children’s author. After working on numerous children’s books, Kuklin began thinking about issues that were current for young adults. She has examined the justice system, AIDS, child slavery, suicide, and human rights.

Angry Management
Chris Crutcher
ISBN 978-0060502478
Greenwillow Books, 2009
Grade 8 and up
Realistic Fiction/Issues

There are six new volunteers for Mr. Nak’s angry management group, find out why they’re here.

Summary:

Chris Crutcher brings together six characters from previous books in these three novellas. Sarah Byrnes, Angus Bethune, Montana West, Trey Chase, Matt Miller, and Marcus James all have roles in Angry Management. Although the characters may not have known each other in previous novels they are united in this one. All six are voluntarily participating in Mr. Nak’s angry management group. Sure, they all have problems, but Mr. Nak wonders why some of them are there. Friendships and romances form; characters develop self-esteem, learn to love, and operate outside of their comfort zones.

Critique:

In typical Crutcher style, Angry Management addresses hard hitting issues. Its another classic, though I imagine it will see more popularity with those already familiar with these characters. The writing and character development are excellent; I love seeing everybody grow over the course of Angry Management. I would definitely recommend this title to Chris Crutcher lovers.

Curriculum Ties:

Use the first novella to discuss ethics in journalism.

Controversy:

Child abuse, sexuality.

Challengers should visit Crutcher’s website and see what he has to say about censorship and book banning.

Selection Rationale:

Chris Crutcher is one of my favorite authors, and I think his books will prove to be classics, so I couldn’t wait to read this new release. This will be a hit with readers familiar with Crutcher’s characters.

Booktalking:

Give a brief introduction to each character from Mr. Nak’s point of view.

About the Author:

Angry Management is Chris Crutcher’s newest title. He is has written many young adult novels that address tough issues; he is a vocal opponent of censorship and book banning.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, DVD
Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Directed by Peter Sollett
Sony Pictures, 2009
PG-13
Romantic Comedy/Music

Nick, a straight boy in a queercore band, meets beautiful but understated Norah after a rough break up. Their love of music brings them together.

Summary:

After Nick’s hot girlfriend breaks up with him he meets Norah, the daughter of a rich director. Norah is actually a friend of Nick’s ex and has been secretly pining after the mix CDs he creates. The two spend the evening and night trying to track down the band Where’s Fluffy? and bonding over music. Romance and hilarity ensue.

Critique:

I thought the cast did a great job with this terrible movie. I could hardly stand it. The concept is good, though.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

None.

Selection Rationale:

Great actors and actresses! Teens familiar with Michael Cera and who love music will flock to this movie.

“ ‘Slight’ is too strong a word to apply to this teen spin on Martin Scorsese’s After Hours… The compensations are Cera and Dennings, both charmers with a wry way around a comic line.” – Rolling Stone

Booktalking:

One night, one band, one boy, one girl; what will happen?

About the Author:

Peter Sollett is the award-winning director or Raising Victor Vargas.

Black Box
Julie Schumacher
ISBN 978-0-385-73542-1
Delacorte, 2008
Grades 9 to 12
Realistic Fiction

Elena wishes she could access the black box inside her hospitalized older sister.

Summary:

Elena has always taken care of her big sister Dora. Her job is made more difficult by Dora’s hospitalization after a suicide attempt. Rather than getting better after her hospitalization, medication, and therapy, Dora’s mental state progressively declines. Elena is at a loss. Dora makes her swear her loyalty, forbidding Dora from telling their parents when she skips her meds or hordes pills. Dora’s condition continues to deteriorate and she attempts suicide again.

Crititique:

Elegant and moving. Schumacher employs metaphor beautifully.

Curriculum Ties:

Use in metaphor studies.

Controversy:

Suicide.

Have challengers read the entire book and refer them to the great number of accolades received by Black Box.

Selection Rationale:

“Schumacher beautifully conveys Elena’s loneliness and guilt as she tries to protect her sister without betraying her, as well as the emotional release she experiences upon finding someone to trust with her own feelings. The spare prose is loaded with small, revealing details of the relationships that surround Elena and how they change through Dora’s illness. This novel is a quick read, but it will leave a lasting and ultimately hopeful impression.” – Booklist

“Fittingly, the novel doesn’t resolve neatly; although it ends on a note of healing and hope, its strength is in the way it allows readers to see the messy, ugly complexities of mental illness and witness the collateral damage it wreaks on the entire family.” – Kirkus

About the Author:

Julie Schumacher is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. Her first short story was included in Best American Short Stories in 1983. She writes for both adults and younger readers.

Lock and Key
Sarah Dessen
ISBN 978-0-14-241472-9
Penguin, 2008
Grades 9 to 12
Realistic Fiction

Will Ruby be able to open up to her new life, or will she keep everything under lock and key?

Summary:

Ruby was abandoned first by her older sister and then by her mother. When Child Protective Services steps in and makes her move in with her older sister, Cora, Ruby feels like her whole world has been turned upside down. In a stable home for the first time Ruby feels lost and alone. The neighbor boy quickly tries to befriend Ruby, who is reluctant to start a relationship. Naturally, Ruby does begin to make friends with the neighbor and others. She slowly lets her walls down; she finds a job, bonds with her sister, and discovers some truths about her family. Her first year with a real family and friends is a tough learning experience, but Ruby flourishes by the end of the book.

Critique:

I liked this title much more than anticipated, the plot was entertaining and I found most of the characters interesting. Ruby’s personal growth was exciting to witness.

Curriculum Ties:

Examine the use of metaphor in Lock and Key.

Challenge Issues:

None.

Selection Rationale:

I found this a pretty solid contribution to chick lit and Sarah Dessen is incredibly popular.

ALA Ultimate YA Bookshelf

“Despite the uneven narrative, Dessen’s writing can be beautiful, and her story is involving.” – Booklist

“The narrative’s tendency to skate past key events, detailing the buildup and aftermath but skipping the thing itself, may frustrate those who want every juicy detail. Still, the in-depth exploration of issues of family, trust, and responsibility gives readers plenty to chew on, and the complex, deeply sympathetic characters are pure pleasure to spend time with.” – The Horn Book Magazine

Booktalking:

Describe family from Ruby’s point of view.

Author Information:

Sarah Dessen is the author of nine young adult books. Her most recent release is Along for the Ride.

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

August 7, 2009

Boy Toy
Barry Lyga
ISBN 0-618-72393-5
Grades 10 to 12
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
Realistic Fiction/Abuse

One of the things Josh learned at the age of twelve was how to please a woman.

Summary:

In this story, ripped from the headlines, Josh is now a high school senior whose past won’t let him go. His teacher, Eve, molested Josh at the age of twelve.  Josh’s relationship with Eve didn’t come out until he almost raped one of his best friends; he was just doing what he was taught.  Now, his whole town knows his secret. Ever since his relationship with Eve began, Josh has experienced flickers (flashbacks). He is unable to date and feels like a social pariah. All of a sudden, Rachel, who he assaulted that day five years ago, comes back into his life and wants a relationship. The two begin hanging and gradually it turns into more. But Josh still has a lot of hang ups regarding Eve, particularly since she was just released from jail. Seeking closure, Josh tracks down Eve and confronts her. The meeting clarifies their relationship and helps him better understand his role as the victim.

Critique:

I found this disturbing novel to be very powerful. I was very moved by how much Josh didn’t understand that he was a victim. I had to put this one down a few times, but I am so glad I read it.

Curriculum Ties:

Use Boy Toy to illustrate the narrative device of flashbacks.

Controversy:

Graphic sex, child abuse, rape, violence.

This book is graphic  and explicit, provide warnings and discussion points for parents and teachers. Have reviews at the ready to defend Boy Toy. Be prepared.

Selection Rationale:

As with The Burn Journals, this is an important book because it is about issues that are normally discussed only in the context of girls. Boys are sexually abused, too. It is also an excellent portrait of the long and complex healing process one individual experiences.

“Authentic and fresh, the narrative voice develops along with Joshua, gaining experience but never overpowering the tortured undertones. Lyga’s portrayal of the fight between Joshua and Sherman’s husband is riveting and tense; the main character’s later reflections on that confrontation are equally powerful. Deftly weaving together a painful confession and ambiguous ending, Lyga’s dynamic writing style creates an emotionally wrenching and haunting tale.” – Kirkus

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008

Booktalking:

Describe Josh’s flickers (but not the explicit content of them).

Present Josh’s story as a news headline.

Read the list of things Josh learned when he was twelve.

About the Author:

Barry Lyga is the author of the very popular novel The Astonishing Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl, a sequel is scheduled for a fall 2009 release. Lyga also writes comics and graphic novels.

Skim
Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, illus.
ISBN 978-0-88899-753-1
Groundwood Books, 2008
Grade 9 and up
Graphic Novel

When one student commits suicide, everyone is obsessed, and Skim just finds herself getting more and more depressed.

Summary:

Skim is goth and Wicca (kinda). She sticks out, Asian and chubby, in a sea of slim white faces. That’s why they call her ‘Skim’ — because she isn’t. Popular Katie’s popular boyfriend kills himself and the teachers and students become obsessed. Everyone is watching her, they think she might be next. When Katie falls off a roof, her friends rally around her; Skim finds herself growing farther apart from her own best friend. Skim falls in love with her teacher, Ms. Archer, goes to a Wicca/A.A. group, chain smokes, and mopes. Social groups are shifting around her, and finally she finds herself shifting along with it, finding a new friend and possible girlfriend in Katie.

Critique:

This subtle exploration delves into sexuality, depression, and relationships. The illustrations are full of mood and emotion. Skim, her teachers, and classmates are alternately serious and funny.

Curriculum Ties:

Introduce Skim when exploring alternative forms of narrative.

Controversy:

Sexuality, suicide, romantic relationships with teachers.

Ask challengers to read the entire book and refer them to the positive reviews received by Skim.

Selection Rationale:

This is a different story and it clearly illustrates the way that social groups change during turbulent adolescent times. Many girls will find themselves able to identify with the characters in Skim. The book also shows that people are not always what you perceive them to be.

“With honesty and compassion, this innovative narrative communicates a life just beginning, open and full of possibility.” – School Library Journal

ALA Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens, 2009

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2009

About the Author:

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are cousins, this is their first project together. Independently, Mariko is an author (non-fiction, plays, etc.), queer activist and performance artist, and graduate student; Jillian went to school for graphic design, she works primarily as an editorial illustrator.

Looking for JJ
Anne Cassidy
ISBN 978-0-15-206190-6
Harcourt, 2004
Grade 8 and up
Realistic Fiction/Crime

JJ hasn’t existed since Alice was released from prison, but when someone starts looking for her in town, will her secrets be exposed?

Summary:

As a child JJ committed a terrible crime, she murdered one of her friends in a fit of rage. Now, she’s served her time and has taken a new name and identity. Alice lives with a foster mother, is a senior in high school, has a boyfriend, and works in a cafe. She’s pretty normal. But there is the ever looming threat that her true identity will be discovered. The press is always there and her mother is out there somewhere, too. When it happens, Alice’s cover gets blown, it still comes as a shock. Once again she has to confront her past and create a new identity, in the process losing all of the comfort, love, and safety of being Alice.

Critique:

A well-written and though provoking read. I only wish there were more explanation of why JJ committed such an atrocious act, I understand her anger but what else was going on?

Curriculum Ties:

Looking for JJ could be used when discussing journalism, particularly ethics in journalism.

Controversy:

Murder, violence, child abuse.

Refer challenger to reviews and ask them to read the entire book. Indicate the social relevancy of the issues presented in this book.

Selection Rationale:

This book brings up too many issues to ignore.

“The ethical issues and solid, suspenseful storytelling provide many discussion possibilities.” – Booklist

“Crisply plotted and smoothly written, this gripping hook is sure to bold teens’ attention.” – School Library Journal

ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2008

Booktalking:

Share the murder scene.

About the Author:

Anne Cassidy’s most recent book, The Dead House, is available now. She is the author of over twenty-five young adult novels.

Debbie Harry Sings in French
Meagan Brothers
ISBN 0-8050-8080-5
Holt, 2008
Grades 8 to 12
Realistic Fiction/GLBTQ/Music

Johnny is a big Debbie Harry fan, she becomes a mantra for him. But what does it mean when Johnny wants to be Debbie Harry?

Summary:

Johnny’s dad dies in an accident when he’s twelve. Over the next four years Johnny numbs himself with alcohol and music. After he’s slipped Ecstasy at a Goth club, his mother send him to rehab where he is introduced to Debbie Harry’s music. Debbie Harry becomes his idol, he loves her music and her style. More and more, though, he’s finding that he wants to be like her, to have her power and her grace. When it looks like being at home isn’t going to work out, Johnny’s mom ships him off to South Carolina to live with his uncle Sam and cousin Bug. At his new school he meets beautiful Maria and is harassed for being gay. But Johnny isn’t gay, he has a crush on Maria. Johnny and Maria start dating and he tries to explain how he feels about women: he wants to have sex with women, but he also wants to harness their beauty, toughness, femininity, and gentleness for himself. Maria is surprisingly understanding and encourages Johnny to participate in a drag show as Debbie Harry, she even creates the perfect Debbie Harry dress. Johnny doesn’t win the drag show but he does achieve the feelings of beauty and power he has been reaching for.

Critique:

An excellent book, I was pleasantly surprised, and I absolutely loved the ending. I thought that Johnny’s gender identity was handled very nicely, although it came out of the blue. I love that he isn’t gay. I would recommend this as a queer story that isn’t really about being queer. The integration of the 80′s goth/industrial/punk music was awesome! I wish Johnny was my friend.

Curriculum Ties:

Can be used with other GLBTQ titles to explore identity and literature in English classes.

Controversy:

Sexuality and gender discussions.

Let challengers know how important it is for teens to see themselves reflected in books, etc. Ask challengers to read the whole book and refer them to positive reviews.

Selection Rationale:

This is a great story that takes a different look at gender and sexuality. I can’t remember the last adult book I read about transvestites, let alone a young adult book. This is an important addition to library and bookstore shelves.

“…this compelling and ultimately uplifting novel fills a niche in the growing body of GLBTQ literature for teens.” – Booklist

“This hip work by newbie author Meagan Brothers encourages readers to explore the meanings of all the shades of gray that exist between gay and straight.” – ReadingRants.com

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2009

Booktalking:

Describe Johnny’s desire to be beautiful, powerful, sexy, gentle, and tough all at the same time… just like Debbie Harry.

Author Information:

This is Meagan Brothers’ first novel.

An Abundance of Katherines
John Green
Read by Jeff Woodman
ISBN 1-4233-2451-X
Brilliance Audio, 2006
Grade 9 and up
Realistic Fiction/Humor

6 discs, 7 hours of listening time

Colin has a thing for one type of girl: Katherines. When Katherine the 19th dumps him, his friend decides its an excuse for a road trip. Colin meets Lindsey Lee Wells, will she be the one to end the Katherine streak?

Summary:

When Colin Singleton is dumped by his nineteenth Katherine, his best friend, Hassan, decides it is time for a road trip. Colin needs to get over it, also, Colin needs to get over Katherines. You see, Colin has been dating Katherines (not Kathys, Kats, Kates, or Catherines — just K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-Es). Hassan and Colin wind up staying in Gutshot, Tennessee after meeting Lindsey Lee Wells. Lindsey’s mom puts them to work interviewing town members for an oral history she’s creating. All the while, Colin is searching for a Eureka moment, a moment of inspiration, which he thinks will appear through math equations. Little does he know, Eureka moments often happen when you least expect them.

Critique:

Fun and touching. Woodman does a great job bringing Green’s characters to life. This is my favorite John Green story, he has a thing for weirdos, and Colin is oddly endearing and likable.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

None.

Selection Rationale:

Humor is necessary, especially humor that will appeal to both male and female readers.

“The smart, quirky characters come to life through reader Jeff Woodman’s gentle, thoughtful interpretation.” – Booklist

ALA Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults, 2008

Booktalking:

Anagram like Colin.

Explain the Katherine addiction.

About the Author:

John Green is the author of three incredibly popular young adult novels. He also has a pretty good website and blog (http://www.sparksflyup.com).