February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

YA Underground: Books for Teens You Might Have Missed

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Although I didn’t come up with this column’s name—YA Underground—I’m appreciating it more and more. The kids I serve are living underground both metaphorically and literally. My library is in a 350-bed lockdown facility that serves adolescents ages 11 to 19, and it’s in one of three rooms with winAmy Cheney juvenile celldows. I have the only room with windows that are at eye level. The sunlight streams in and looking out, you can see trees, grass, clouds, sky, and sunsets beyond the barbwire.  When Jonas (not his real name), an avid manga fan, was in the library on his every-other-week visit, I heard him describe the library as “a lonely bright spot.” He was talking about books—but aren’t books windows?

Nationally, there are more than 700,000 teens in custody each night—teens who have been abused and neglected, teens who are entrepreneurs, teens who have experienced many major losses, teens with adult experiences and low reading levels. Due to the fact that minorities are disproportionately confined, too many of these teens are African American and Latino. Being underground, they’re the canaries in a coal mine, exposing what’s poisonous in the environment. There are many opportunities to reach these young adults both in and out of custody. My hope is that this column can bring to light new finds for these “urban” readers.

According to a December 2012 Anna E. Casey Foundation report, nearly 4.3 million young adults (ages 20 to 24) are unemployed and truant. That 4.3 million translates to a national 74 percent teen unemployment rate. With those statistics, it’s an understandable and even somewhat logical choice to turn to an underground economy. Kenny Johnson’s memoir, The Last Hustle, is unique in providing insight into the normality and reasoning that led to his choice of a life that was devoted to crime. The consequences? He spent over 20 years in city, state, county, and federal prisons. Booker T Huffman’s From Prison to Promise tells a more familiar story of a neglected child who turns to the successful role models he sees growing up: gangsters and drug dealers.

Most of my teens were initially victims, with their victimization not adequately addressed. Meg Medina’s fantastic Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (slight quibble: the title should be Is Going to, not Wants to) deals with bullying and the way that teens facing difficult and challenging circumstances hold their fear and vulnerability underground. Check this out along with these other featured titles.

*The names of kids have been changed.

Takoudes, Greg. When We Wuz Famous. Henry Holt, March 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780805094527.

When We Wuz FamousGr 8 Up—The jury (my kids as well as myself) is still out on this title. It reminds me of Matt De La Pena’s pacing style—slow to start, yet ultimately an engaging read. In one of the first chapters, Francisco’s girlfriend, Reignbow (yeah, really), is talking openly to the police. From my experience, this is completely unrealistic and I’m not sure my kids will make it past this point. But by page 61, I was rapidly turning the pages as Francisco struggles with attending the white prep school on a basketball scholarship and feels torn by his loyalty to Reignbow and his messed-up foster kid brother who’s on the streets. Takoudes made a movie with teens from Spanish Harlem and the book is based on the film.

Huffman, Booker T with Andrew William Wright. Booker T: From Prison to Promise. Medallion Press. 2012. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781605424682.

Booker TGr 8 Up—Booker T was one of eight children. His hardworking father died of a stroke when he was 10 months old, and his equally hardworking mother died of surgical complications when he was 13. Without her, the family fell into chaos, leaving Booker T and his youngest sister to fend for themselves. His mother’s house gradually decays around them as the electricity, water, garbage and other services are cut off, while his older siblings are living their lives to various dysfunctional degrees. Booker T then turns to the successful role models he sees around him: gangsters and drug dealers. In junior high, he becomes a father but doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it and blames his girlfriend and abandons his son, just as he was abandoned. Ending up in prison with a job in the laundry, he talks his way onto the weight-lifting team. Upon his release, he recognizes his responsibilities, gets his son out of foster care, and is on his way to becoming the six-time world wrestling champion and public figure he is today. It’s not action-packed, but rather a straight-forward, no-frills commentary.  Reluctant readers will find the trim size appealing and subject matter of interest, and other teens will pick it up for a quick read.

Johnson, Kenny with Shanti Einolander.The Last Hustle. Non-Duality Press. 2011. pap. $16.45. ISBN 9780956643285.

The Last HustleGr 8 Up—Street lore says that a life of crime leads to only one of three places: death, prison, or going crazy in prison. There’s a fourth option that isn’t talked about much but experienced by some—a deep spiritual awakening leading to complete and total transformation. This isn’t a religious conversion, but an awakening to the true nature of life so that abiding peace is found even in the most challenging of circumstances. The latter was Kenny Johnson’s experience. He writes, “Prison was where I discovered my soul and so much more.” Throughout his life, he desired freedom. Ironically, prison offered him the challenges of confinement and pain as well as the time to read, study, and take classes. Teens who are looking for titles like Jarvis Masters’s Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (Padma Publishing, 1977) will enjoy this book.

Medina, Meg. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Candlewick. March 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763658595.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your AssGr 9 Up—There’s a lot packed into this vibrant small book which will make it a favorite for teens. When the stair to their tenement collapse, Piddy’s mom, an immigrant from Cuba, insists on moving.That means a new school.The trouble begins right away when Yaqui Delgado targets 16-year-old Piddy with threats. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, much less what she has done to instigate these threats. Living in fear, her grades suffer, and she finally figures out that to avoid trouble, it’s easier to skip school. Piddy is tough, and knows the rules of the streets, but she doesn’t want to fight. But that doesn’t work—Yaqui tracks her down and inflicts a brutal beating that’s posted on the Internet. Subplots include a boy with an abusive father, Piddy’s desire to work with animals—elephants, to be exact—a wonderful hair salon/aunt/neighbor contingent, and Piddy’s longing for information about her father whom she’s never met. Lots of action with a realistic setting, dialogue, relationships, problems, and solutions make this book a winner. The cover—a blue locker with graffiti for the title—will attract reluctant readers. The content will keep them reading to the end and wanting more, especially to hear Yaqui’s story.

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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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  1. An excellent idea! Are you taking suggestions? If so – and you seem to be amenable to self-published writers – then may I suggest my YA F/SF novel Corvus? You’ll find all the download links at my website.

    In an alternate present the minds of teen offenders are uploaded into computers for rehabilitation—a form of virtual wilderness therapy. Zach is a homo cognoscens, one of the new humans who can navigate the Fulgrid. Though still a high school student, he is indentured to the Fulgur Corporation as a counsellor. Laura is a homo sapiens. Their story is part odyssey, part tragedy, part riff on the nature of consciousness.


  1. […] Journal (SLJ) column will run reviews every other month or so through-out the year. Please see: http://www.slj.com/2013/01/books-media/collection-development/ya-underground-books-for-teens-you-mig… for an example. There will be an annual book award for top titles. The final list will be […]