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.