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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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.

My Father’s Son
Terri Fields
ISBN 1-59643-349-3
Roaring Brook Press, 2008
Grade 7 and up
Realistic Fiction

Kevin Windor, seventeen, lives a pretty normal life. His parents are divorced, so he doesn’t get to see his awesome dad all the time. On a day just like any other, Kevin turns on the TV and sees his father’s face, so much like his own.

Summary:

Kevin Windor is a regular guy, with a regular life. Sure, his parents are divorced, but he gets to hang out with his Dad most weekends, unless he has to travel. Things are starting to come together for Kevin; he’s finally kissed the girl of his dreams! Then, Kevin turns on the TV one day after school; on the screen is his father’s face, which looks just like his own. Greg Windor is accused of being the DB25, a particularly heinous serial killer plaguing the tri-state area. Kevin is reluctant to believe this terrible truth about his father, who seemed like such a normal guy. He begins to suffer taunting and social isolation as a result of his undeniable association with Greg Windor. Kevin’s personality also begins to change as a result of the stress and trauma of his situation; he becomes angry, depressed, and violent. Is he turning into his father? As DNA evidence is released, proving that his father did commit the final DB25 murder, Kevin has to reevaluate his position. Greg is bound for prison when another DB25 type murder occurs. New discoveries are made and Greg is exonerated. Kevin must now process the emotions of doubting his father in such an extreme way.

Critique:

I was absolutely riveted by the majority of My Father’s Son. As reviewers have noted, the story takes a turn that is hard to swallow toward the end. My Father’s Son will introduce a lot of topics for discussion.

Curriculum Ties:

My Father’s Son would be an interesting inclusion in a Political Science class or unit on the justice system or as a lesson in developing mystery plots for a writing unit.

Controversy:

Violence, mature content.

Ask challengers to read reviews and to read the whole book.

Selection Rationale:

I was so intrigued by this story I had to include it here. This will be a successful pitch with reluctant readers and avid readers alike.

“Although the surprising conclusion seems a little contrived after the believable realism of the rest of the tale, this is still a fast-paced and sometimes disturbing look at families and violent crime and its many victims, seen and unseen.” – Kirkus

ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2009

Booktalking:

Defend Gregor Windor from the position of Kevin Windor

About the Author:

Terri Fields is the author of many books for children and teens. Her teen material can be categorized as realistic fiction.

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
ISBN 0-439-02348-3
Scholastic, 2008
Grades 7 to 10
Science Fiction/Adventure/Dystopia

Katniss refuses to let her sister enter a battle she has no chance of winning. But will she have the resources to survive this fight to the death?

Summary:

In a dystopian future North America is now a collection of thirteen colonies called Panem. Supplies are short and many aspects of society have reverted back to those in past ages. The government hosts annual televised games in which each colony sends a representative boy and girl to participate in a fight to the death. The winner is the last one alive and brings fame and food to his or her community. Katniss’ young sister is one of those selected. Of course, Katniss cannot stand to watch her sister enter this battle and volunteers to take her place. Katniss leaves behind her sister, mother, and best friend (Gale, also a burgeoning love interest). The boy selected from her town is Peeta, with whom she has had a bond since they were children. As a marketing ploy, Katniss and Peeta’s handlers/agents direct them to feign a romance. The ploy works only too well and Katniss and Peeta both find themselves developing complicated feelings for one another. The two manage to survive until the end, both together and apart. They face starvation and suffer serious injuries and exhaustion, but their mental and physical strength gives them the upperhand. However, only one contestant can survive. The pair decides to pull one over on the game organizers, and dose themselves with poison. They anticipate that an official will step in before it is too late. Katniss and Peeta are prevented from taking the poison and both declared winners. Katniss acts like a jerk and lets Peeta know that she was only pretending to love him for the ratings. When Katniss and Peeta arrive at the Capitol for an awards ceremony, they are let known that the government is very unhappy with their decisions at the end of the game. Katniss and Peeta are in trouble, the government is watching them. Katniss must choose between Peeta and Gale in the next book.

Critique:

Having read a great deal of hype before finally getting around to The Hunger Games, I am happy to say I was only minorly disappointed. I should say that my disappointment came from the book’s focus on adventure rather than the dystopian society. I’m just not as into adventure. That said, this was an excellent read and I cannot wait for the sequel. Both fast-paced and meditative, solid characters, a suspenseful ending, action, romance, friendship, and family, with a sci-fi element make this a book that both male and female readers of all ages will love.

Curriculum Ties:

Collins cites mythology (Theseus) as inspiration for The Hunger Games; inclusion within such units in English and History courses would be appropriate.

Challenge Issues:

Violence committed by teens against other teens.

Ask challengers to read the whole book and refer them to its outstanding reviews and popularity.

Selection Rationale:

The Hunger Games is an easy sell; from the cover to the final page, this is a story that will appeal to boys and girls alike. Despite the complications of romance, there is enough adventure and action to create immense appeal for readers not looking for a relationship story.

“What Collins has done here is set up a series that will sink its teeth into readers. The future of this book will go one of two ways. Either it will remain an unappreciated cult classic for years to come or it will be fully appreciated right from the start and lauded. My money lies with the latter. A contender in its own right.” – School Library Journal

ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2009

Booktalking:

What does Gale feel when Katniss volunteers to take Primrose’s place?

About the Author:

Suzanne Collins is also the author of the best selling series The Underland Chronicles. Prior to writing novels for children and young adults, Collins wrote for children’s television.

Additional Information:

Part of a planned trilogy, the sequel, Catching Fire will be released early this fall.