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.

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Homeboyz
Alan Lawrence Sitomer
ISBN 978-142310030-0
Hyperion, 2007
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

Violence is a part of life when you live in T-Bear’s neighborhood, but when the street hits close to home and he decides its time for pay back, T-Bear’s life start to unravel.

Summary:

T-Bear’s little sister, Tina, is the victim of a drive by shooting. Everyone thinks it’s a case of RP, RT – wrong place, wrong time. The only thing on T-Bear’s mind is revenge on the gang that committed the crime. T-Bear is a computer genius who has no interest in gangster politics, but getting back at the people who took his sister away from his family. T-Bear comes up with a foolproof plan, but a storeowner gets in the way and T-Bear gets caught. He ends up on probation under the supervision of Officer Mariana Diaz, a product of the tough streets herself. Diaz is implementing a mentoring component as a part of her rehabilitation program and T-Bear is assigned to twelve-year-old Micah, an aspiring gangster. T-Bear pretends to play along with his probation program, all the while he is designing his revenge via computer hacking. Micah and T-Bear begin with a tense relationship, but make great strides as T-Bear realizes the obstacles Micah faces. Impoverished and held back by dyslexia, Micah struggles with hunger, discomfort, and reading difficulties. Micah and T-Bear’s relationship ends up growing, Micah spends time with his family, proving to be the balm that winds up healing the grieving group.

Critique:

I greatly enjoyed this read, I found it thoughtful, sad, engaging, and ultimately, uplifting. Sitomer’s characters are often complex and invite the reader to care about them. The language was appropriate and helped to evoke the mood of the story. The emotions felt real.

Curriculum Ties:

Use in discussion about the juvenile justice system.

Controversy:

Language, violence, gang activity, illegal activity.

Refer challengers to reviews, and ask them to read the whole book. Note how T-Bear undergoes changes in his point of view. Also, his books are backed by Disney!

Selection Rationale:

This book will find popularity with a wide variety of readers. Many will find themselves able to relate so some element of the story.

ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2008

“…Sitomer uses lean, mean street-speak and dark urban landscapes to emphasize the cycle of violence that Teddy is on the verge of getting caught up in. For the most part, true-grit reality takes precedence over an occasionally preachy subtext, and readers will find themselves riveted with every turn of the page. A frighteningly real story of survival, brotherhood, and friendship.” – School Library Journal

“In this decidedly unsubtle sequel to Hip-Hop High School (Hyperion, 2006), sullen computer wiz Teddy sets out for revenge after gangbangers gun down his sister, Tina, in a drive-by shooting… Still, the tale’s violent, rough-hewn plot and street inflected language supply sufficient intensity to carry the heavy agenda.” – Booklist

Booktalking:

Is revenge the answer? Reflect on using violence to get revenge from T-Bear’s point of view.

Discuss T-Bear and Micah’s relationship from Officer Diaz’s point of view.

About the Author:

Alan Lawrence Sitomer is an inner-city high school English teacher and professor of Education at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of four young adult novels and two non-fiction books.