February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Style or Substance? One Teen Makes the Point | YA Underground

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

Hopefully, you’ve all read publisher Lee and Low’s terrific piece on the state of diversity in children’s books (and if you haven’t, now is the time). In response, Tanita Davis writes on her blog that “Writers of color, however new, are expected to produce…what? Not the next Hunger Games, that’s for sure. The expectation seems still so weirdly strictured: poverty, slavery, history.” I love that she wrote this. While I agree, and inwardly cringe every time I sell all of the great YA books with white protagonists in the majority to one of my kids of color, we still need more of all kinds of books for teens featuring people of color or from disadvantaged backgrounds. In particular, I find a dearth of teen-friendly books that actually address the very real, very gritty and stark poverty and street culture that the kids I serve experience every day.

YA Underground came about after I wrote a piece about self-published memoirs. For many years I have been actively trying to find new books for my kids that accurately reflect their lives (and believe me, it’s not all about being poor and downtrodden—if there were an African American Harry Potter I’d be more than thrilled). I hoped having a column (and committee, more on that in a future column) would send books my way—new authors to bring to light—especially for our teens’ reading pleasure. Let’s be clear. It is still by chance that I come across the ones that I do. I’d say I’ve read five books to every one that I feel is even worth mentioning.*

Marilyn Jones’s book is worth mentioning.

From Crack to CollegeJones has written a passionate memoir about her experience as an abuse survivor, single mother, crack addict, and college student. Written with humor and insight, From Crack to College & Vice Versa is equally real and thoughtful. Jones grew up with her loving grandparents, where food and nurturing were abundant. It was the 1970s in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, steeped in a strong Black Panther presence, and among many businesses owned by Black people, which instilled in her a sense of self-pride and love. At age 9, she moved into her father’s house where she encountered a toxic mixture of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Jones was introduced to crack cocaine in 1985 when she was 19 years old.

In a detailed account filled with important insight, Jones describes the life of a crack addict: exchanging  her body for drugs, in and out of juvenile hall, county jails, drug treatment, and losing her children. She writes, “When I first got locked up, I was very angry, [but ultimately] I gave up fighting the system and adjusted. […] my ability to function and not be so angry was looked upon as progress by the juvenile facility’s staff, but […] all I did was learn how to be in jail.” Also important are her insights and writing about the college experience, and the inherent racism and classism she experienced from curriculum to people being scared of her impassioned discussion style.

Self-published, Jones did a good job with the cover From Crack to College. The type face and interior design is functional but not particularly pretty, and the book could definitely, no doubt about it, use an editor to clean up the misspellings and repetitions, and improve overall flow and narration. In spite of the flaws, Jones’s voice shines through.

I gave the book to Janelle (not her real name), a biracial 17-year-old. She likes to read Chicken Soup for the Soul and inspirational books, and reads when she is not in the facility. When I asked for her feedback on From Crack to College, she said, “Has it been edited? Some stuff you can tell it hasn’t, because she said it twice. This is a book that wants to tell her story. It’s important because if you on crack you think there is no turning back, but it’s a major turnaround because some people can’t even get off weed and go to college. It gives you hope and inspiration and makes you want to go for something.”

A Piece of CakeIn this genre, A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown still stands out as the superstar of drug memoirs, particularly for teens of color, but of interest to all teens. African American Cupcake is thrust into the foster care system when her mother dies. Experiencing abuse, gangs, and drug addiction, she completely turns her life circumstances around and becomes a lawyer and an internationally bestselling author. Well-written, filled with a ton of action and valuable insight, the memoir details clearly the interesting steps Brown took to change—it’s off the charts!

Come Back coverI asked Janelle to talk with me about a few of the books she read on the topic of crack, and terrifically, she explains where From Crack to College is in the spectrum. “Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back is a one—the book talked to me. Diary of a Crack Addict’s Wife is a two. The writing was more to tell the story with so much detail you can Diary of a Crack Addict's Wifesee it. It was kind of slow and I put it down a lot, because it was hard to find the action part. From Crack to College is a three. It was more like me writing a book and giving it to you. But it was real, talked like us, was shorter and easier to read. There was action.”  While clearly Janelle values a well written and edited story (as most everyone does), and clearly, race and class aren’t always of the utmost importance in relate-ability (Come Back is about a middle class white mother and daughter), there is enough of value in From Crack to College to pick up, read and easily finish the book.

I couldn’t find my one copy of From Crack to College for several weeks—girls were reading it. I tracked down Amanda, a 16-year-old African American girl who isn’t a big reader, and she had the book in her room. She sums it up perfectly—“The way she writes could be better but the overall story is good.”

Indeed, there is enough in From Crack to College that sets it apart from mainstream memoirs, making it a truly worthwhile read for anyone, including a population whose interests aren’t always reflected on our library shelves or served at the checkout desk. These teens need books that are really by, about, and for them.

Bottom line: this book belongs not only on inner city and urban library shelves; it belongs in libraries everywhere.

From Crack to College & Visa Versa is available on Amazon or direct from the author. I gave Jones the information on how to set up her book with Ingram, but she would only receive $1.10 per copy, so decided against it.

*In case anyone comes across the titleBitter Fruit: the Street Ministryand thinks it might have potential due to it’s provocative and street teen-pick-up immediately cover, two words: Nope. None.

Brittenum, DeVan Faye. Bitter Fruit: the Street Ministry. Brittenum. 2013. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781482047462.

Brown, Cupcake. A Piece of Cake. Broadway Books. pap. $11.49. ISBN 9781400052295.

Fontaine, Claire and Mia. Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back. William Morrow. pap. $15.95. 0060859718

Hunter, Cynthia. Diary of a Crack Addict’s Wife. Kensington. 2005. Tr $15.00. ISBN 0758208340

Jones, Marilyn Denise. From Crack to College & Vice Versa. Marilyn D. Jones. 2013. pap. $14.95.  ISBN 9780989427401.







SLJTeen header

This article was featured in our free SLJTeen enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month.

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.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.
Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. Marilyn just let me know that From Crack to College will be available on Ingram’s in about 6-8 weeks.
    There is an “expanded distribution service” from Amazon that enables the book to be distributed for a per page fee, but allowing more royalties to go to the author.