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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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.

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.

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).

The Knife of Never Letting Go
Patrick Ness
ISBN 9780763639310
Candlewick, 2008
Grades 8 to 12
Science Fiction/Dystopia

How is it possible that secrets still exist when everyone’s thoughts are heard?

Summary:

Todd is the last boy left in Prentisstown; boys become men when they turn thirteen. Todd lives on an alien planet, in the last town left. The women are all dead, which means humans are a dying breed in this world. A native alien group known as ‘spackles’ released a germ which killed all women and made men’s thought audible to everyone, this is known as the Noise. Todd is in the swamp one day when he encounters a place with Quiet, even animals have Noise so this is something he hasn’t experienced before. He runs home to his adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, who are very worried by his news. They provide him with a map and backpack and tell him he has to leave. Todd trusts them, and so heads out of town with his ‘talking’ dog, Manchee. Before long he is back in the swamp where he encounters the Quiet again, turns out its a GIRL. The first one Todd has seen since he was a baby. Todd rescues her from the evil preacher, Aaron, and the two head out of town. They are pursued by townsmen. Todd suspects that Viola will be overcome by the spackle’s germ and die at any time, but she doesn’t. Eventually she introduces herself to Todd as Viola. The two continue to flee from the unstoppable Aaron, they are shocked to come upon other settlements. Some are friendly others are hostile. Aaron winds up killing Manchee, Todd’s best friend. Suffering from multiple wounds, exhaustion, and hunger, Todd passes out. He wakes up in a new town where he is being cared for by Dr. Snow. Something is weird in Dr. Snow’s town, so Viola and Todd flee. At the river they find Ben, who quickly explains some of the truths about Noise, their town, and the planet’s history. Aaron continues to pursue the two and they engage in a final battle. Ben is shot, but Aaron is finally killed. Todd and Viola head toward Have, where they hear there is a cure for Noise and think they will be safe. Arriving at Haven, Todd finds the city under control of the evil mayor of his town. All of their effort seems for naught.

Critique:

This story was a little different from what I was expecting but I loved it! I look orward to Ness’ sequel even more than that for The Hunger Games. Ness makes the reader think, and I found many of the elements of this novel to be inventive and compelling.

Curriculum Ties:

This book could be used in units where writing in dialect is taught.

Controversy:

None.

Selection Rationale:

This is a really unique story, with enough to challenge older readers and elements that will appeal to younger readers. Ness has a wonderful command of language and is very creative.

“Some of the central conceits of the drama can be hard to swallow, but the pure inventiveness and excitement of the telling more than make up for it. Narrated in a sort of pidgin English with crack dramatic and comic timing by Todd and featuring one of the finest talking-dog characters anywhere, this troubling, unforgettable opener to the Chaos Walking trilogy is a penetrating look at the ways in which we reveal ourselves to one another, and what it takes to be a man in a society gone horribly wrong. The cliffhanger ending is as effective as a shot to the gut.” – Booklist

“Todd’s world is a fascinating one, and the psychological and sociological impact of being unable to shut out others’ thoughts—or hide your own—is creatively explored. The relationships, too, are nuanced; slow to evolve, they have considerable emotional depth by the last page. Todd’s colloquial voice is by turns defensive, belligerent, innocent, and desperate; the strength of his point of view and the subtle world-building contained in it make this series opener as promising as it is provocative.” – The Horn Book Magazine

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2009

Booktalking:

Describe what it was like the first time Todd met Viola, esp. her Quiet.

About the Author:

The Knife of Never Letting Go is Patrick Ness’ first young adult novel, he has two novels written for adults.

Additional Information:

This is Book One in the Chaos Walking trilogy. The sequel, The Ask and Answer, is due out September 2009.

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 Burn Journals
Brent Runyon
ISBN 0-375-82621-1
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
Grade 8 and up
Non-Fiction/Memoir

Fourteen-year-old Brent cannot stand the thought of facing his parents after screwing up again. The only way out he can see is death, but when his plans go wrong, Brent endures a year of pain and recovery.

Summary:

At age fourteen Brent Runyon sets himself on fire. He is depressed and in trouble at school again; he’s already tried to kill himself several times, he figures fire is an element you can’t back down from. Boy, was he wrong. Rather than face the consequences of his actions, Brent puts on his bathrobe, douses it in gasoline, steps into the bathtub and lights a match. After mere moments the pain is more than he can stand. He turns on the shower and puts out the flames. Unsure of what to do, he leaves the bathroom to find his brother. And so begins Brent’s year in rehab and therapy. The Burn Journals recounts his painful physical and mental healing as a result of the third-degree burns covering eighty-five percent of his body. Brent endures skin grafts, operations, and physical and psychiatric therapy. He thinks his brother hates him, he has to deal with social repercussions.

Critique:

Wow. This is quite a story, parts of it are very shocking and moving, but overall I found the book lacking. Although the book was engrossing, it seemed there was a level of his mental healing process that Runyon could not communicate. Why was he so depressed? Was he a pyromaniac? What was wrong with him? I was left with a lot of unanswered questions by this one — Runyon offers up no answers or solutions except for the importance of help. However, I think it is a valuable addition to a teen biography/memoir collection.

Curriculum Ties:

Use The Burn Journals while studying memoirs in a Language Arts or English class.

Controversy:

Suicide, graphic descriptions of Brent’s physical recuperation.

Have challengers read the entire book. Highlight the importance of discussing depression in teen boys as well as girls.

Selection Rationale:

I read good reviews of this book, but that isn’t why I included it. This is a book about male depression, an important and seldom addressed issue. The Burn Journals is important for this reason. It will undeniably also appeal to girls.

ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, 2007

Booktalking:

What does Brent’s brother see and feel when Brent walks out of the bathroom?

Author Information:

Brent Runyon, born 1977, has written three books for young adults. He is a regular contributor to NPR’s This American Life, where the story of his suicide attempt was first featured.

Additional Information:

The audiobook version of The Burn Journals is an ALA Amazing Audiobook for Young Adults (2009).

The Burn Journals http://www.burnjournals.com/content.html