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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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.

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.

Ball Don’t Lie
Matt de la Pena
ISBN 0-385-73232-5
Delacorte, 2005
Grade 9 and u
Urban Fiction/Sports

Sticky is at his best on the basketball court. There, it isn’t about his dead mother, his shoplifting habit, or even his girlfriend.

Summary:

Sticky has been bouncing from foster home to group home and back again for the past ten years, ever since his drug addicted mother committed suicide. As an aspiring basketball player in a poor neighborhood, Sticky is a white boy living in a world of black men. At 6′ 3″ with an OCD diagnosis, he has a tendency to stick out. Sticky plays for his high school team and spends a lot of time playing ball at a local rec center. This is where Sticky thrives. Over time Sticky has become one of the guys in this diverse group. Sticky’s greatest wish is to play basketball professionally.

Sticky is also a shoplifter, but after a lifetime of poverty who can blame him when he just wants a new pair of khakis? He meets his girlfriend An-thu while trying to lift some pants from the store she works at. Sticky struggles to be a good boyfriend to An-thu, navigate socially, and do his best at basketball. Being broke doesn’t help and an attempted molestation by one of the guys he plays ball with is majorly disruptive. Sticky almost loses it all when he robs the wrong guy at an ATM, trying to get the money to buy An-thu a present. Although Sticky ends up in the hospital, he doesn’t get arrested and the wound in his hand heals. At the novel’s end, Sticky is being recruited by college basketball teams.

Critique:

Boys and girls alike with find something to love about Sticky and Ball Don’t Lie. With romance, basketball, violence, drama, and humor, this book should find universal appeal.  I found the dialogue and language authentic and adored the characters. This book felt real.

Curriculum Ties:

Use Ball Don’t Lie to examine develop different voices in a writing unit.

Controversy:

Teen sex, language, shoplifting, violence, child neglect, suicide.

Refer challengers to the strong reviews of this book.

Selection Rationale:

This is such an honest and heartfelt book it deserves inclusion on any YA list; it is also a unique addition to the urban fiction genre and is sure to appeal to boys.

“Pena’s debut tells a riveting story about Sticky’s struggle to secure a college basketball scholarship and deepen his relationship with his girlfriend… Teens will be strongly affected by the unforgettable, distinctly male voice; the thrilling, unusually detailed basketball action; and the questions about race, love, self-worth, and what it means to build a life without advantages.” – Booklist

“Basketball has an urban fan base, and de la Pena does an excellent job of combining the streets with the sport. Gritty and mesmerizing.” – Kirkus
“Realistic dialogue, interesting characters, and a unique voice keep this novel from being just another story about inner-city life, lifting it into the realm of good literature.” – Library Media Connection

Booktalking:

Read aloud one of the many basketball scenes.

Read aloud the section where Mico burns Sticky with a cigarette, pages 64-65.

Read a scene from Sticky’s hospitalization and his observations of Anh-thu, pages 264-274.
About the Author:

Matt de la Pena is also the author of Mexican Whiteboy (2008) and We Were Here (2009). He has an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. He loves basketball and attended college on an athletic scholarship.

Additional Information:

Ball Don’t Lie was adapted into a movie .

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.

Bluford High: Summer of Secrets
Paul Langan
Scholastic, 2008
Grade 6 and up (Summer of Secrets is written for 5th or 6th grade reading levels, but has content sophisticated enough for high school students)
Urban Fiction

Darcy Wills is being eaten up by her secret; but when everyone else seems to have a secret too, the load becomes too much.

Summary:

It seems like this summer is definitely the summer of secrets to Darcy Wills. Darcy has her own secret, but it seems like everyone else is keeping secrets, too. Darcy is still dealing with a sexual assault that only her parents know about. The near rape happened with a boy she’d been warned about by her former friend. After losing her good friend and boyfriend, Hakeem, when he moves away, Darcy starts dating another boy. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a predator. This secret is getting in the way of Darcy’s relationships and prohibiting her from moving on after her break up with Hakeem. She is finding it difficult to heal, developing a lot of rage and suspicion as a result. Darcy sees danger signs everywhere, sometimes in the right places. When her old friend starts dating a questionable new guy, Darcy gives her a heads up about the situation and it turns out she was right. Summer of Secrets ties up relatively neatly, Darcy takes steps toward recovery and rebuilding the relationships she lost, her parents let her in on their secret: they’re pregnant, and learns to stand up for her friends and her beliefs even when its difficult.

Critique:

This is an excellent hi-lo read, although I suspect it would have been more enjoyable had I read the book that precludes this story (Until We Meet Again). Summer of Secrets addresses the complicated emotions of rape in a competent manner, in particular stigma that can generate secrecy. I really appreciated the way that female friendship and looking out for each other was highlighted in this story.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Addresses rape, teen sex, and domestic violence.

Highlight to challengers the manner in which these issues are addressed in the book. Point out the popularity amongst students and librarians.

Selection Rationale:

The Bluford High series is a perfect example of Hi-Lo readers; these will engage students who may have a difficult time with fiction.

Highly recommended by many librarians and teachers as a hi-lo read to get reluctant and low-level readers into fiction.

Booktalking:

Reflect on the dangers of keeping secrets from Darcy’s point of view.

About the Author:

Paul Langan was born in Philadelphia in 1972, he studied creative writing in college. After working as an Assistant Editor at Townsend Press for awhile, he began writing and editing for the Bluford series.

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.