November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Inspirational Memoirs

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One of my favorite books of 2011 was Little Princes by Conor Grennan. It made that year’s AB4T best list, and Grennan is in demand around the country at schools and colleges where his book is a great Common Read choice.

I say all of this to give context to the first of today’s books. Gail Gutradt’s In a Rocket Made of Ice is a most welcome readalike for Little Princes. The author works with children in Cambodia who have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Her own story is less appealing than Grennan’s, but for teens inspired by service, her writing about the individual children she has worked with, and other Wat Opat volunteers, is equally inspiring and moving.

Rayshawn Wilson may have grown up in the United States, but his coming-of-age was no less full of danger and drama than Gutradt’s Cambodian orphans. Lionheart is Wilson’s self-published memoir about going from child of a crack addict, through a life of crime and prison, to college graduate and respected professional. He is currently the Director of Supportive Services at Columbus Urban League, OH.

GUTRADT, Gail. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot. 322p. photos. Knopf. Aug. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN  9780385353472. LC 2014006731.  

In 2001, ex-Marine Wayne Dale Matthysse and Vandin San founded Wat Opat as a hospice for Cambodians dying from AIDS. What Matthysse discovered was that the children left behind after their parents died needed a safe and secure place to grow up. Matthysse redirected his work to building a community at Wat Opot to provide a stable home for those children and for the many who came to him later seeking comfort, shelter, and care. Author Gutradt volunteers each year at Wat Opat, bringing her own perspective, talents and presence to the community. She tells the stories of this hospice with simplicity and a grace that allows the humanity of each child and adult to shine. Recounting Matthysse’s spiritual journey from soldier to caretaker along with her own inner-seeking, Gutradt describes how each child brings a joy and a challenge to the volunteers, helping them understand how to best aid the kids to create their very best future. She uses each child’s story to trace the growth of Wat Opat from its humble beginnings into a thriving community that continues to provide a home for the many children afflicted with disease and extreme poverty. Reading about the culture of modern Cambodia reveals a world perspective that is completely different from our own Western view; and American teens will find from these stories that while all children want the same things—love, parents, safety, and a future worth working for—the road to getting there can be very treacherous for some. A good readalike for Conor Grennan’s Little Princes (Morrow, 2011).—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming From Where I’m From. 232p. Legendary. Oct. 2014. pap. $15. ISBN  9780982786321.  

Wilson grew up in Columbus, OH, knowing how to cook up a batch of crack, steal food from the grocery store in order to survive, and lie as a matter of course. When he was six years old, his house was invaded by the police, guns drawn. He was put into the backseat of a police cruiser, terrified, watching as his crack addicted mother was handcuffed and taken away.  Thus began a journey that too many African American and Latino teens in this country have experienced: foster care, sexual abuse, running away, breaking into people’s homes (Wilson would eat cereal before he left) and finally, dealing drugs. “Crime was as constant as breathing and provided more promise than tomorrow,” Wilson writes. After serving two years for a crime he did not commit, Wilson became the first person in his family to graduate from college. How he went from his beginnings as a child of a crack addict (a woman who is shown to be so much more than the stereotype) to multiple college degrees among many other accomplishments, will keep teens engaged and turning pages. Self-published, the book is well written with a forward-moving narrative and just the right mixture of the action-filled kid and teen years balanced with his later, more adult transformations. There is too much type on the page and not enough white space, but that’s about the only downside of this terrific memoir.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

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Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.

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