Dope Sick
Walter Dean Myers
ISBN 978-0061214776
Amistad, 2009
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

What if you witnessed your death before it happened? What if you got a second chance? Lil J re-lives the drama of his past and looks into the trauma of the future to discover where he went wrong.
Summary:

Lil J is broke sick. He is beaten down. He heads out to apply for a job at the Home Depot and get his prescription filled. He feels confident, looks good. But the line for interviews stretches out the door and his mom is addicted to the painkillers he’s picking up.

When the opportunity arises to get in on a high paying drug deal, Lil J seizes the opportunity. Rico, his partner in the deal is a heroin addict, skimming off the top of the bags before the sale. When Rico and Lil J meet the buyer something doesn’t feel right – he’s a cop. Rico shoots the cop, leaving him in critical condition, and the two run.             Lil J is shot in the arm by a second undercover cop.

The cops are after Lil J. Rico was caught and named Lil J as the shooter. Injured and on the run, Lil J seeks refuge in a crack house. He timidly strikes up conversation with a man named Kelly who he takes to be a crackhead. Lil J soon learns that things are not always what they seem.

A TV in Kelly’s room shows the street scene outside – cops searching for Lil J. Kelly has a remote control and a TV that can show Lil J’s future, and its not looking so hot. Shocked by the image of him poised on the building’s rooftop, surrounded by police, holding a gun to his own head, Lil J wishes he had the power to change the past to fix this future. According to Kelly, he can alter the past and create a new beginning. He just needs to figure out what to change.

Most of the book is Lil J reflecting on his life and the decisions he has made. Initially, Lil J makes it seem like he’s led a life free of missteps, but over the course of the book the truth comes out. Lil J is a father, a drug user, a minor criminal, he went to jail, and failed at school. As Kelly fast forwards and rewinds with Lil J, Lil J becomes more self aware.

Critique:

Dope Sick is a stunning addition to Walter Dean Myers’ works. This novel is a breathtaking read. Incorporating both harsh realities and the supernatural, Dope Sick will resonate with readers who have ever wished they could take something back. I cannot say enough good things about this story, the writing is impeccable, the is story universal, and the emotions are real. Watching Lil J watch himself about to commit suicide is heart wrenching.  I loved this book from beginning to end.

Curriculum Ties:

Use Dope Sick in a unit on magic realism or the literary device of flashbacks.

Controversy:

Violence, violence against law enforcement, drug use, teen sex.

Indicate to challengers the importance of Walter Dean Myers in the field of young adult literature. Have challengers read the entire book and refer them to reviews.

Selection Rationale:

A new book from Walter Dean Myers is too important to overlook in a list like this. I found Dope Sick to be an extraordinary contribution to young adult literature. I think this is a title that could be used in advanced English classes as well as one to lure in reluctant readers.

ALA Quick Pick Nomination, 2010

Booktalking:

Summarize Lil J’s situation, and the decisions put before him.

What does Kelly think of Lil J?

About the Author:

Walter Dean Myers was born in 1937 in West Virginia. He was raised by adoptive parents in Harlem. After dropping out of high school at the age of seventeen, Myers joined the army. He has written over fifty fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults and is one of the most critically acclaimed young adult authors around.

The Coldest Winter Ever
Sister Souljah
ISBN 0-7432-7010-X
Washington Square Press, 1999
Adult
Urban Fiction

Winter learned to hustle from the best, will it be enough to keep her alive?

Summary:

Winter Santiaga has it all: the looks, the money, the power, and the home. These are the things that matter to Winter. Winter’s father, Ricky, is a successful gangster in New York, who taught his wife and children the art of hustling. But the the Santiagas’ world is quickly turned upside down beginning with a shooting where the mother is shot in the face.  Mrs. Santiaga is destroyed by wound; her beauty is ruined and she forms an addiction to painkillers. Santiaga is arrested along with most of his street army. With no one to turn to and limited reserves of money and resources the Santiaga family implodes. Winter’s sisters, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus, are snapped up by child welfare and sent to foster homes, but Winter evades the system, ever a hustler. She lives with an older man for a while, followed by a stint with an aunt. At her aunt’s she is reported to child welfare and placed in the House of Success, a group home for girls.

She continues hustling at the home, employing Simone, a friend from Brooklyn to steal items that she re-sells to the House of Success residents. Simone, pregnant, is arrested and Winter refuses to put up bail. Simone is released and brings a crew of girls to the House of Success to beat Winter up. Winter escapes and runs away, but Simone falls and eventually miscarries. Another resident of the House of Success advises winter to stay away and takes her to a “friend’s” house for refuge.

It turns out this friend is Sister Souljah, a political activist whose message Winter despises. Even with an opportunity to grow and perhaps change her destructive path, Winter continues on the road to self destruction. She hustles those who want to help her. Unfortunately, Winter’s hustle at Souljah’s fails when Souljah’s sister switches their bags, leaving Winter with nothing. Forced to leave Souljah’s house, Winter runs into Bullet, a man she dated previously. They rekindle, after all, Winter needs a place to go. Bullet arranges a big, final hustle that will allow he and Winter to set out on their own. The deal is a bust, Winter lands in jail and Bullet walks free.

Prison. This had to be where Winter was headed all her life. She is joined by friends and family from Brooklyn, everybody she knows is there. Released on a pass to attend her mother’s funeral, Winter reunites with her sisters, the eldest of whom is just like Winter. It is not until the very end of The Coldest Winter Ever that Winter realizes her mistakes and learns a lesson or two.

Critique:

The Coldest Winter Ever was kind of like a relentless tapping on your shoulder. Not painful, but definitely annoying. Winter is awful, but you still root for her as she makes bad choices again and again. Witnessing her downward spiral is painful and emotional. She has no respect for herself and thus gains little from others. Sister Souljah effectively illustrates the problems of crime and the cycle of crime, abuse, and beliefs that the Santiaga family is absorbed by.

Curriculum Ties:

An interesting English class assignment would be to pair this novel with another epic family tale, something more conventional such as 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez.

Controversy:

Explicit sex, language, violence, crime.

This is an adult novel, so challenges to it might be rare. I would not shelve it in a YA section. Should a challenge arise from a teen reading the novel, (or any other reason), ask the challenger to read the entire novel and think about the message that Souljah is trying to communicate. Highlight the important place that The Coldest Winter Ever holds in the urban fiction genre and the role that this genre can play in the reading lives of urban youth.

Selection Rationale:

The Coldest Winter Ever is cited again and again as a groundbreaking novel. It is a classic in the urban lit genre.

“Although the novels writing is amateurish, the message is sincere.” – Library Journal

The Coldest Winter Ever is a fast-moving, impeccably brilliant account of choices and consequences within the urban hip-hop culture. Sister Souljah writes eloquently with expressive insights and language of youth. Amidst the crisis and cruelty of inner city poverty and seemingly insurmountable struggles, Sister Souljah’s voice is one of grace and unmistakable clarity in one young woman’s coming-of-age story.” – Magill Book Reviews

Booktalking:

Read the final paragraph, Winter on her sister, page 284.

Construct an opinion of Winter from Midnight’s point of view.

About the Author:

Sister Souljah, born in the Bronx, is an activist, musician, author, performer, and film producer. She is the author of three books. Souljah lectures on many topics about relationships, self-esteem, and rights in the African-American community, as well as diversity and coalition building.

Street Pharm
Allison van Diepen
ISBN 1-4169-11154-5
Simon Pulse, 2006
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

This life is in Ty’s blood, but times are changing and Ty has to think on his feet to survive.

Summary:

Ty took over his father’s business at age sixteen. The life of a dealer is the only life he knows, even if it did put his dad in jail. Ty tries to do everything right and keep under the radar, keep safe. He has a fake job, doesn’t spend excessively, and only lets a couple people in on his business. Even with all his precautions, life takes a turn for the worse when a new dealer, Darkman, moves into town. At the same time Ty starts seeing a new girl, Alyse, who is different from the rest of his world. Ty has to keep much of his life secret from Alyse, which becomes increasingly difficult when someone blows the whistle on his operation. Ty is hospitalized after a drive by shooting, and he has to make decisions about the type of man he wants to become: will he follow in his father’s footsteps or clean up his life?

Critique:

A good read. I found the central characters to be likable and well-formed. Street Pharm did not have the most believable voice at times. This should be a popular novel with reluctant readers, there is plenty of action and a lot of material for teachers and librarians to introduce in discussions. Overall, an excellent addition to the genre complete with positive message.

Curriculum Ties:

Street Pharm would be a good choice for an English class discussion book.

Controversy:

Drug and alcohol use, drug dealing, crime, language.

These elements of the novel are not glamorized, rather, everyone’s life is made more difficult by decisions to engage in illegal activity. Things start looking up for Ty when he decides to distance himself from that life. The language is necessary to provide an authentic feel. Refer to inclusion on ALA “best of” lists and reviews. Ask challengers to read Street Pharm through the conclusion and see if they change their mind.

Selection Rationale:

A positive book, with an ultimately uplifting ending.

ALA Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2007

“There is plenty of swearing, violence, and raunchy topics scattered in the dialogue and the action because this book takes a realistic look at life in a dangerous urban neighborhood. The author researched this story while working in a perilous inner-city Brooklyn high school. It is an eye-opening account of a nice kid who is caught between two worlds and has to make some tough decisions. It also conveys a poignant message for reluctant readers.” – VOYA

Booktalking:

Read the newspaper article about Ty’s shooting, pages 190-191.

Read page 278, about the business taking everything away from Ty.

About the Author:

Allison van Diepen is the author of three young adult novels: Snitch, Raven, and Street Pharm. Van Diepen received a BA in History from Carleton and then moved on to teaching school. She got her inspiration for Snitch and Street Pharm from her experiences as a teacher in Brooklyn. She is a high school teacher in her Canadian hometown, Ottawa.