October 18, 2017

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Transcending the Genre: True Crime for Young Adults

Salacious headlines, disturbing details, and stories tinged with scandal. While true crime is often associated with the prurient and the voyeuristic, a trio of new titles prove that the genre is far more nuanced. These books challenge teens to open their eyes to the realities of the justice system, to exhibit compassion, and to be conscious of the inequities that so often lead to crime—in sum, to be perceptive, sensitive members of society.

With The 57 Bus (Farrar, Oct. 2017; Gr 6 Up), Dashka Slater takes a deep dive into a seemingly straightforward case. Eighteen-year-old Sasha, who was assigned male at birth but identifies as agender (neither male nor female) and prefers the pronouns they and them, was asleep on a public bus in Oakland, CA, one afternoon in 2013 when Richard, 16, set Sasha’s skirt on fire. Sasha suffered second- and third-degree burns on their legs, and Richard was arrested, charged with assault and a hate crime, and tried as an adult.

Slater, who originally covered this story for New York Times magazine, made the inspired choice to name the book after the bus where the crime took place, emphasizing that it was the bus that brought together the two teens, who lived in the same city but had incredibly divergent experiences growing up. Sasha, white and from an upper middle-class family, had access to a wealth of resources at their small, progressive private school; Richard, who was black and from a lower-income neighborhood, attended a large public school where he had to actively seek support.

Through detailed reporting, Slater crafts profiles of Sasha and Richard and their families and social networks, evoking sympathy for both teens without losing sight of the magnitude of Richard’s transgression. This is a rich work that explores complex topics such as gender identity and raises difficult questions: When, if ever, should young people be tried as adults? Does hate crime legislation, designed to protect the vulnerable, serve its purpose? How should a society treat its criminals? The author refuses to provide easy answers, instead pushing readers to come to their own conclusions.

Like The 57 Bus, Eve Porinchak’s One Cut (S. & S./Simon Pulse, May 2017; Gr 8 Up) forces teens to consider their assumptions about the justice system. One night in Agoura Hills, CA, in 1995, a group of teenagers entered Mike McLoren and Jimmy Farris’s backyard fort. A fight broke out, and in the melee, Jimmy was fatally stabbed (Mike was injured but recovered). The press swiftly branded the intruders—Jason Holland, 18; Micah Holland, 15; Brandon Hein, 18, Tony Milioti, 17, and Christopher Velardo, 17—ruthless killers. Though just one of the teens had wielded the knife, and only four of them had taken part in the brawl (Christopher had waited in the car), all would face grave consequences. Contending that the young men had gone to the fort planning to rob Mike and Jimmy, the state convicted four of the teens of first-degree murder, citing the felony murder rule (in California, a homicide that takes place during the commission of a felony, such as robbery, is considered murder, regardless of the offender’s intent, and all participants in the crime are held responsible).

The particulars of the night in question are shrouded in mystery for much of the book, but it eventually becomes apparent that the stabbing was if not accidental, then a spur-of-the-moment act rather than the deliberate deed that first-degree murder implies. While Porinchak establishes that the teens were far from blameless, she comes down far more harshly on a legal system that ignores the basic humanity of the accused. In addition to criticizing felony murder doctrine, she takes aim at an unrelentingly tough judge who turned a blind eye to misconduct, an overzealous district attorney who was hungry for an easy win after recent humiliating defeats, the biased media, and the practice of trying minors as adults. With short chapters, stripped-down prose, plenty of information on the legal process, and details that personalize the defendants, this accessible title is the perfect introduction to the many flaws that mar the justice system. Readers will have wildly different opinions on how accountable each of the teens were and what should have happened to them; expect spirited discussion on crime and punishment.

Unlike the other two titles, Allan Wolf’s Who Killed Christopher Goodman? (Candlewick, Mar. 2017; Gr 9 Up) is a work of fiction, yet it is rooted in actual events and is a keenly perceptive look at the aftermath of a crime. When Wolf was in high school, a classmate was murdered. While Wolf knew the boy only in passing, the loss weighed on him, and the novel was born out of his desire to make sense of the event. Set in 1979, the same year that Wolf’s acquaintance died, the book opens with the discovery of the body of a teenage boy. With his penchant for enormous bell-bottoms and wordplay, the lovably eccentric Christopher Goodman was a memorable presence in Goldsburg, VA, and waves of shock reverberate among five teens in particular. Doc Chestnut, Squib Kaplan, Hunger McCoy, Hazel Turner, and Mildred Penny weren’t close friends with Christopher, yet in the weeks before his death, their lives intersected with his—and with his killer’s.

Savvy readers will guess the answer to the titular question within pages, but this is no mere whodunit. Wolf is less interested in dropping red herrings and tantalizing clues as to who pulled the trigger than in illustrating how these characters grapple with a misguided yet understandable sense of guilt. The author adroitly dissects the series of actions, or in some cases inaction, that led to Christopher crossing paths with his killer on the night of Goldsburg’s annual Western-themed festival. Alternating among the voices of these five characters and the murderer and relying on various narrative formats, this intentionally chaotic novel mirrors the inevitable disorder that accompanies any violent death.

Ed. note: Additional titles of interest can be found in Chris Gustafon’s article “‘Everyday Inequality’ and the Criminal Justice System | New YA Books,” published in the June 2017 issue of Curriculum Connections.

 

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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