November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Street Life: Memoirs for Teens | YA Underground

The mass incarceration system isn’t working, and the same kids come in and out of the facility for years, as their basic needs are not being addressed. The majority come in for “status offenses” and these teens continue to be profiled once they are released. When I first started serving youth in lockdown, the majority of kids hadn’t ever read a book they liked, though many of them become voracious readers during their incarceration, especially when given access to relevant and essential texts. The latest YA and adult offerings being published—primarily written by and about white people—are never enough to keep my kids of color excited about reading. Thankfully, people in the margins have found ways to be entrepreneurial and create resources where there are none. It is exciting to bring these three memoirs to light and to my teens in order to ease, just a little bit, their hunger to see themselves reflected in books.

Billie_Billie King’s self-published Billie (PRK Publishing, 2014) is everything I want a book to be—with a couple notable exceptions. A fantastic cover shows a full-face photograph of a cute little African American girl with her teddy bears beside her on the sidewalk. I wish YA publishing houses would create realistic covers like this. The interior of the book doesn’t disappoint: the narrative is fast-paced with lots of action and excellent details about a life filled with horrors. Teen girls and boys will connect with this work. Born in Compton, CA, King finds out, after reading her mom’s diary, that her father is a pimp and her mother is an exotic dancer. When her mother finally escapes her brutal father, King’s mother becomes severely alcoholic and drug-addicted. What’s unique about this book and makes it an important purchase is King’s description of her coping mechanisms as a child: her full-blown codependency is described in agonizing detail, and it’s easy to see the work she has to do to overcome many of her issues.

Unfortunately, King’s sex and love addiction is not explored in the same way. The ups and downs of her relationships are described in a way that puts this on the racy side of YA, which I personally wish she left out because it didn’t need to be so explicit. Her postscript mentions that she has found true love, though readers may doubt that statement based upon the evidence of her previous relationships. The assortment of grainy photographs included within the narrative adds a wonderful layer of authenticity.

StreetGodCoverDimas Salaberrios’s Street God (Tyndale, 2015) starts with a lot of detailed action and the pacing doesn’t let up. Salaberrios’s African American mother was a principal at the local school and his Puerto Rican dad was a former Air Force employee turned captain at Rikers Island, the notorious New York state prison. But by the time Salaberrios aka “Daylight” was 11, he was selling mescaline to his middle school peers and was passionately interested in becoming the most powerful player on the streets. By the time he was 15, he was a crack addict and in a cell on Rikers. As with similar books about gangbangers turning to religion, the extremes of street life soon morph into an exploration of conservative Christian Evangelism. Teens may get bogged down a bit in his jet-setting on a mission for God and involvement in church politics, but they will stay intrigued by how Daylight brings his ministry back to the streets. It makes for entertaining and interesting reading. The excellent cover will have readers grabbing the book off the shelf.

Slugg_Tony Lewis’s Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Hanover Place Pr., 2015) is a top pick, and is also self-published. When Lewis was two years old, his father was 19, a drug kingpin, and a millionaire. As a child, the author led a pampered life in a big house with cars, electronics, and the trappings of wealth, even going to private schools. At age nine, his life descended into chaos when his father was arrested and given a life sentence. Lewis’s mother became increasingly paranoid, finally succumbing to mental illness. This beautiful and important book holds page after page of insight and reflection about prison, choices, fatherhood, and connection. Lewis went from seeing his father every day to seeing him three times in the 13 years he was incarcerated. The young man struggles with his own demons and what he is going to make of his life. Eventually, he goes on to win national awards for community service, and readers cheer him on as he does. When he is slated to speak inside a penitentiary, it coincidentally is the same place where his father is incarcerated. We weep along with him for the simple yet profound experience of sharing a proud moment with a proud father, feeling the devastation in the lives of many robbed of such experiences. I wish the cover were better, but it’s a must-buy.

King, Billie. Bille: A Memoir. PRK Publishing, 2014. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781530012435.

Lewis, Tony Jr. with K.L. Reeves. Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Hanover Place Pr., 2015. $15. ISBN 9780692431573.

Salaberrios, Dimas with Dr. Angela Hunt. Street God. Tyndale House. 2015. pap. $15.99. ISBN 978496402783.

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Amy Cheney About Amy Cheney

Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate, serving the underserved for over 25 years including preschoolers, middle schoolers, adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color. She began YALSA-Lockdown, a list serve for librarians serving youth in custody, which led to the formation of Library Services for Youth in Custody (LYSC). She founded In the Margins book award and committee, which brings national attention to self published books by, for and about people of color living in the margins. Her theme song is "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" by Cake. Learn more at Write2Read.

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