November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Increasing Awareness of Youth “in the Margins” |YA Underground

More and more youth are displaying critical disconnections from literature due to the lack of available texts that reflect their lived experiences. Books that are self-published or produced by small independent publishers offer a growing opportunity for diverse character representation.

For marginalized youth who sometimes walk a path of isolation, books that reflect their lived experience help to validate their existence and show others that the “world is not made of one single story,” as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says. For nonmarginalized youth, diverse titles offer the opportunity to see the world as their peers experience it and the language to take part in dialogue for better mutual understanding.

Incarceration, homelessness, mental illness, LGBTQ-related issues, emotional and physical abuse, lack of parental figures, teen pregnancy, and gang violence are just a few of the many experiences many young people navigate while trying to maintain hope of survival. The following titles can shed light on some of these circumstances and provide content to interest both the reluctant and the voracious reader.

help-me

Donna M. Zadunajsky’s Help Me! is a novella of raw and daring dialogue that intimately addresses multiple challenges. Over the course of a few months, 13-year-old Mick Conners deals with the backlash of his mother’s infidelity, which resulted in his parents’ divorce and the birth of half siblings he rarely sees. He also deals with the suicide of his best friend, who felt helpless after enduring daily bullying, which Mike, too, experiences. Mick deals with these jolting issues with coping devises that include cutting and, eventually, Russian roulette. If this fictionalized account comes across as riveting and authentic, it’s because the story is based on a real-life account. For youth who face depression and bullying and feel that they have no way out, this book encourages them to talk about it rather than hide or bury their feelings. This powerful title can be read in a short time frame and features a subject that is capable of generating rich dialogue among readers. For those on the outside looking in, this volume gives cues that serve as flags and warning signals. The first installment of a series by the same name, this title provides online resources on suicide and self-injury prevention as well as the author’s own gmail account as an outlet for those who simply need someone to talk to. “I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that we need to do something about it,” Zadunajsky writes.

the-missingMelanie Florence’s The Missing takes a serious look at how authorities have chosen to ignore the disappearance of indigenous girls in the Canadian province of Winnipeg, where a large number of girls have gone missing and then turned up dead, yet their cases are not always followed up with investigations. The author addresses these issues through Feather, a strong-willed protagonist who stops at nothing to get to the bottom of her girlfriend Carli’s disappearance. One of the high creep factors is in the abductor’s view of his victims, who are compared to food products instead of humans. While this is presented as a mystery, the story focuses less on the investigation and more on how the protagonist and her friends cope with the mishandled themes of abduction, antigay sentiments, child abuse, racism, and mental illness in the community. The book has a hi-lo reading level with short chapters to catch the interest of reluctant readers.

little-miss-somebodyWhen I sat down to read Christy Lynn Abram’s Little Miss Somebody, I planned to read just a little, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I kept envisioning that Nikki would be saved by someone, or save herself by finding her father, but in this first installment, the 15-year-old protagonist cannot find refuge. From the first line, she is mocked and called “white girl” because her Northwestern accent, blue eyes, and curly hair do not sit right with the hard-core St. Louis street girls who bully her. Set in an environment of generational poor parenting and substance abuse, Little Miss Somebody provides a clear and concise description of what life can be like for those who have been both abused and abandoned by multiple adults and older youth, with no knowledge of whom to turn to—nor how often these situations can remain unreported to authorities. At the end, I was disappointed with Nikki’s judgement, which caused her to continue to fall into the hands of irresponsible adults. I was angry that no adults in her life stood up for her and that there was no happy ending. My disappointment lasted until I spoke to others and was able to see how clearly the book allows readers to observe the impact of the characters’ decisions and how well the narrative was written, leaving readers wanting more.

this-way-homeIn Wes Moore and Shawn Goodman’s This Way Home, 17-year-old Elijah lives in Baltimore and is being scouted for a basketball scholarship by college recruiters at an upcoming street ball three-on-three tournament. Winning the scholarship is a way out of his rough neighborhood, where gang life has already claimed his friend. Faced with wearing old tattered uniforms for the tournament, Elijah and his team cannot resist the new gear given to them by a street gang. Wearing the gear during the first round, however, makes the team indebted to the gang, and when the players put their old uniforms back on, it doesn’t stop the gang from retaliating. The authors offer enough action for sports enthusiasts, but the drama broadens the audience, while the short chapters will capture and hold reluctant readers.

untold-storyThe Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison by the Free Mind Writers is a collection of poetry and prose produced by the Free Mind Book Club and Writing Workshop, which is made up of juvenile offenders who were charged and incarcerated as adults and have served or are currently serving time in a Washington, DC, adult detention facility or federal prison. The entries’ themes touch on fatherhood, freedom, identity, love, family, and race, and the volume features black-and-white photos and author profiles of workshop members, many of whom are no longer incarcerated and serve in the workshop’s outreach program as poet ambassadors at community events. The cover graphic, also in black-and-white, was created by a workshop member. With no change in the writers’ vernacular, the authenticity has remained intact. The following is an excerpt from a poem that drives home a teen father’s love for his infant daughter—the reason he is trying passionately to make something of himself:

“Ma’ziyah” by Rico

Lovin’ you and knowin’ you all mine

At only 8 months now, your smile and laugh alone

Make my life just shine

And for anyone to say you isn’t

One of the most beautiful babies that they ever saw

They will be lying!

Ma’ziyah, you is the air I breathe

The earth I walk on and the heart that’s in my chest

I never thought I could love so strong

I feel something in my heart that was never there

At first I was livin’ life not carin’ about livin’ or dyin’

But you have given me a reason to forever care

You is daddy’s princess and I’m so glad…

Another poem reveals the hopeless odds that are stacked against youth who grow up in a low-income environment of systemic social injustices, deprived and ignored by authority and an incubator that fosters failure instead of success:

Southeast DC by Arthor

…I am from where public schools pass you without attending class

I am from where teachers are drug addicts

I am from where being African American with dreadlocks is almost everyone

I am from where mistaken identity is highly possible

I am from where people need help but don’t get it

I am from where you can’t be weak or you stick out

I am from where the smell of gun smoke is usual

I am from where people eat in the dark

I am from where basketball hoops are made from milk crates

I am from where you got holes in shoes and clothes

I am from where you grow up too fast

I am from where every neighborhood has a candy lady and a bootlegger

I am from where Go-Go music is blasting from every radio

I am from where babies are out at midnight

I am from Southeast DC

These verses are the voices of our young incarcerated black and Latinx youth, who need to be heard. Youth who are not incarcerated and read these words should be given a chance to discuss the social issues reflected in the writings.

The list below includes previously mentioned titles, as well as additional essential readings that can serve to help increase awareness of the issues discussed above.

ABRAM, Christy Lynn.  Little Miss Somebody. 278p. ebook available. Humble Bee. 2015. pap. $12.98. ISBN 9780692386224.

ADICHIE, C.N. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story [Video file].

ALEXANDER, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 336p. New Pr. 2012. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781595586438.

FLORENCE, Melanie. The Missing. Lorimer. 160p. Aug. 2016. 160p. Tr $27.99.  ISBN 9781459410886.

FREE MIND WRITERS. The Untold Story Of The Real Me: Young Voices From Prison. 160p. Shout Mouse. 2015. pap. $14.99.  ISBN 9780996927444.

LAURA, Crystal T. Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. 144p. Teachers College Press. 2014. pap. $29.95.  ISBN 978080775596.

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

MCCARTHY, Katherine.  Invisible Victims: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. 198p. Createspace. Jul. 2016. pap. $12.73. ISBN 9781534754607.

MOORE, Wes & Shawn Goodman. This Way Home. 256p. Delacorte. 2015. Tr  $17.99. ISBN  9780385741699.

SEGAL, Nathan.  Life After Bullying: Practical, Actionable Strategies To Rid Yourself of Bullies. 72p. CreateSpace. July 2016. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781535471251.

STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 352p. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994520.

WATKINS, Dwight. The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America. Hot Bks. 2015.  176p. Tr $21.99. ISBN  9781510703353.

ZADUNAJSKY, Donna M. Help Me. 126p. CreateSpace. Jan. 2016. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9781522742456.

About Sabrina Carnesi

Sabrina Carnesi, is a school librarian at the Marie Holland Library at Crittenden Middle School in Newport News, VA. She has worked for more than 30 years in public and independent school educational urban settings and is known in social media as Miss Marie’s Librarian. She is currently a member of In the Margins Award and Book Selection Committee, which is dedicated to bringing national attention to self-published books by, for, and about people of color living in the margins.

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