I remember my expectations of the movie Muriel’s Wedding—laughing, having a good time, giggling with my friend over coffee afterwards. Instead, we left completely irritated and depressed. The movie had been billed as a comedy, and was anything but. Another time, I walked into Exit Through the Gift Shop, a movie I knew nothing about and had no expectations. I laughed hysterically and it became one of my favorite movies of all time.
How much do our expectations influence our reading? I picked up Allison van Diepen’s newest book Takedown and was expecting a lot. The first pages got me excited: Sick Puppy’s arrest is the beginning of the takedown. YA version of the Wire! But then I got bogged down. Darren’s motivation to play the super dangerous game of informing and risking his life while trying to get out of the game didn’t ring true. However, all the teens that I’ve given the book to have been satisfied and their expectations met.
The cover and trim size of Takedown is different from the author’s previous Street Pharm (2006) and Snitch (2007, both Simon Pulse) and doesn’t shelve well as a set—as a result I’ve had to call the teens’ attention to the author and content. The final cover isn’t out yet—the two cover versions I’ve seen so far are both just okay. Maybe the blue one is a little bit better? The nice interior has lots of white space, big enough type, cool font at the beginning of each chapter, and Darren’s rap lyrics in a different type sprinkled throughout.
We are extremely lucky to have some of the best writers for our teens as inner-city school teachers and/or social workers. Coe Booth, Alan Sitomer, and Alison van Diepen are my saviors. I couldn’t do my job without them. I asked Allison about Darren’s motivation, and she said this:
“Making a snitch the hero was a tough sell, especially since it wasn’t because of some dramatic incident, but instead because he’d woken up to the reality that he’d been used—that he’d been the scapegoat—and that he’d lost two years of freedom because of it. My students, both at the alternative school where I teach, and back in Brooklyn, hated snitches, but I’ve always wondered if they might feel differently if they saw the world through the eyes of a snitch.” That’s a worthy cause for writing motivation, and teens will enjoy the read regardless of our lofty hopes for them.
Along the lines of motivating factors, I laughed (silently) when speaker AR brought in a totally hot girl friend (formerly incarcerated, turned her life around) who mentioned Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. I was flooded by boys requesting the book afterwards. Forget booktalks, just bring in a hot girl to wave a book in the air. Unfortunately, not a one could get into the book—their expectation was way different than the reality. James Allen’s bestseller As a Man Thinketh is a classic version of The Secret, and in many ways the old-school language may be a bit more accessible to teens than The Secret’s lofty new ageism.
Sun Tzu’s classic Art of War is one of my most requested books. One of my teens rattled off all the books that mention it, and I should have written them down, but I was scrambling to find copies to fill all the requests. Especially for reluctant readers, it’s great to have different versions of the same book in order to meet differing expectations. Here are the two other versions of the Art of War I offer besides the original:
Kelly Roman’s adult graphic novel version is amazing. Stark pages feature black and white art that pops with red highlights—thigh high boots, a tattoo, blood, a tie, the American flag—and Sun Tzu’s words in gritty bursts throughout. A young man with a mohawk and genetic enhancements is released from military prison to face his demons: an ex-girlfriend he severely injured, the ghost of his murdered brother, a sick father, a world at war. Set in the future, the landscape is devastated, except where it’s been purchased—Manhattan has been bought by China. This is one of those “meta-books,” with more meaning and information unfolding with each read.
The Art of War: How to Be Successful in Any Competition isn’t as complex, classy, or gory as Roman’s version, but it’s more accessible and definitely more shelvable in a teen section, and a good choice for less-skilled readers. Tzu’s wisdom is revealed in full-color art in a variety of settings including a SWAT team, jail cell, old school gangsters, and a poker tournament.
The 50th Law by Robert Greene and 50 Cent is perfect for inner-city teens, or any reader looking for an edgy approach. The good cover image of 50 Cent does not carry through to the inside art, but the combination of story—from hustler to hip hop artist—and words of wisdom and keys to power packs a powerful punch.
Kwame Alexander’s He Said, She Said has the winning alternating girl/boy chapter format along with texts and Facebook posts. He also taught high school, so I had high expectations. Omar is the star quarterback and all around full of himself big man. Claudia is a brainy Beyonce look-alike who is done with playas—but can’t deny she feels a spark, especially after Omar surprises her and uses his fame to rally students in a silent protest to bring back the arts programming. Sigh… Our gritty kids will probably find it too nerdy—in fact they rolled their eyes at me when I booktalked it—and none of them have picked it up. An author visit would rectify and stimulate interest. This isn’t to say that it’s not a great book for lots of teens.
Randy Kearse, after serving 13 years, 6 months and 2 days of a federal prison term, was highly motivated to change his life. In prison he researched and wrote Street Talk and began work on Changin’ Your Game Plan! How to Use Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success. Upon his release he applied his drug dealing skills to hustling his books, selling 35 or more a day for three years on streets and subways. Clearly a charismatic and engaging person, Kearse is definitely a speaker I’d bring in. It’s terrific when he gets specific about the steps he took to change, and there are definitely gems amidst all the repetitions, generalities, and preachiness. You will not hear my usual lament of too much of the dirt (which actually hooks the kids and gets them reading), and not enough of the transformation, as this barely skims the surface of what he was incarcerated for. It’s also surprisingly free of the religious factor except for a guest chapter. Teens aren’t going to be flocking to read it, but it’s a must-have for adult facilities and urban libraries, especially on the eastern seaboard, where the majority of his resource list is oriented.
ALEXANDER, Kwame. He Said, She Said. Harper Teen/Amistad. 2013. 336p. Tr $17.99. 9780062118967.
ALLEN, James. As a Man Thinketh. Tribeca Books. 2013. 62p. pap. $6.99. 9781612930220. (Note: I haven’t found the best version of this classic—still looking.)
BYRNE, Rhonda. The Secret. Atria. 2006. 198p. Tr $23.95. 9781582701707.
GREENE, Robert and 50 Cent.The 50th Law. illus. by Dave Crosland. G-Unit Book, Inc., Robert Greene and SmarterComics, LLC. 2012. 60p. $14.95. 978-1-6108-2006-6.
KEARSE, Randy. Changin’ Your Game Plan! How to Use Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success. 3rd ed. Positive Urban Literature, Inc. 2012. 248p. $14.99. 978-0-9800-9740-5.
KEARSE, Randy. Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop & Urban Slanguage. Barricade Books. 2006. 700p. 978-1-5698-0320-2.
ROMAN, Kelly.The Art of War: A Graphic Novel. illus. by Michael DeWeese. Harper Perennial. 2012. 346p. $ 22.99 978-0-06-210394-9.
TZU, Sun. The Art of War: How to Be Successful in Any Competition. illus. by Shane Clester. Reprint Edition. SmarterComics. 2012. 88p. $12.95. 978-1-6108-2008-0.
VAN DIEPEN, Allison. Takedown. Simon Pulse. Sept. 2013. 288p. $16.99 978-1-4424-8690-4.
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