February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Best Books for Teens Living in the ‘Margins’ | YA Underground

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This past year marked the inauguration of the In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee (ITM), which aims to find the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody—or a cycle of all three.

For a several years, School Library Journal has published a list of the top books that the 250 kids in my facility were reading and getting excited about, including the self-published or little-known titles that became available to me, but that’s just the perspective from Alameda County, California. The purpose of creating the ITM committee was to get feedback from teens across the country and to create authority in our book choices to assist in justifying purchases for detention facilities that are notorious for censorship. Another of the group’s goals is to bring attention to those hidden gems that aren’t on the radar, bringing self-published authors and small press offerings to light. We wanted to bring books by, for, and about people living in the margins to the forefront so we would have more books for our reluctant yet also voracious readers.

The committee of seven met via Google Hangouts at least six times during the year to discuss and debate not only the books, but the committee itself. We looked at over 200 titles, had 30 official nominations, and voted for a list of 25 titles and a top 10 on January 21, 2014.

My teens and other young people across the country were actively involved in reading and voting. Janelle was in my facility for about four months; she read a majority of the books we were considering and weighed in on each. It was wonderful to get her perspective, and equally important to her and the other teens that their voices and choices are counted.

While not every book is one I personally would have placed on the list, I feel very good about our process and the results of our work, as happens on the majority of selection lists. As committee member Julie Winkelstein said, “The list is not a compromise, but more about every voice on the committee being heard.”

The 2014 top ten are, in alphabetical order:

  • Asante, M.K. Buck: a Memoir. Spiegel & Grau. 272p. Tr $25. ISBN 9780812993417.
  • Jones, Marilyn Denise. From Crack to College and Vice Versa. Marilyn D. Jones. 105p. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780989427401.
  • Langan, Paul.  Survivor. Townsend Press. 138p. pap. $5.95. ISBN 9781591943044.
  • McKay, Sharon E. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. Illustrated by Lafance, Daniel.  Annick Press. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9781554514885.
  • McVoy, Terra Elan. Criminal.  Simon Pulse. 288p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442421622.
  • Medina, Meg. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Candlewick. 260p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763658595.
  • Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings, Bad Kings. Algonquin. Anybidy's Daughter304p. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781616203252.
  • Rivera, Jeff. No Matter What. CreateSpace. 112p. pap. $5.38. ISBN 9781493544141.
  • Ryan, Darlene. Pieces of Me. Orca. September 2012. 240p. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781459800809.
  • Young, Pamela Samuels. Anybody’s Daughter. Goldman House. 374p. PB $16.99. ISBN 9780989293501.

Our biggest debate was about Permanent Record by Leslie Stella (Skyscape, 2013). Our committee members loved this book unanimously. It’s well-written, fast-paced, funny, smart, and independently published, and is about a kid with mental health issues, targeted for his Iranian heritage. Elizabeth Burns’s rave reflects our opinion. It didn’t make our top ten only because it doesn’t completely fit our charge, and other books in its category had positive teen feedback from our primary population. (Due to disproportionate minority confinement, our primary population is Latino and African American).

Thirteen of our titles were nominated for other awards or lists; this reflects our desire for the best of the best, as well as our first year getting started in finding our way into the world of self-published titles. One book that I—if not the entire committee—am proud is on our list is the self-published title Anybody’s Daughter, brought to our attention by committee member Vi Dyas. Anybody’s Daughter isn’t on any librarian selection lists that we know of and works well for adults, teens, and those that enjoy urban fiction and mysteries/thrillers. It’s a top read in my facility.

21914livewire3My personal favorite is M.K. Asante’s Buck: a Memoir. Buck was also an Alex award nominee, and is up for a NAACP image award along with Anybody’s Daughter (winners to be announced on February 22). I (and more importantly, my kids) were thrilled to meet M.K. when he visited my facility. I can’t find one of the 40 books I purchased on the shelves; kids who didn’t meet him are asking for the book because the word is definitely spreading. As one of my students said, “It’s a very well-written and inspiring book. I like that it is a raw story and is relatable, plus there’s a lot of  knowledge.”

CriminalI also loved Criminal. The voice was authentic and unique, the character struggling realistically with issues of love, abuse and denial. If there was any trend I noticed this year, I’d have to say it was that there are a lot more books about girls on the streets and in facilities than there are about boys. This trend does not reflect the reality of the huge proportion of black, Latino, and generally impoverished boys behind locked doors in this country, and the relatively small (yet growing) percentage of girls.

Working on any selection committee is a lot of work; I can say that starting one is intense. Now our challenge is to have it continue, and we hope, become an “official” ALA list. After the first year, we are hoping librarians and others will see the value and find the interest and enthusiasm to help it continue and grow. How can we take the list to the next level by finding more independent/self published books? We have some openings on the committee for members and for a Chair. We’d love to have you join us! (You don’t have to serve teens in detention to be a member of the committee). Let us know of your interest in serving by March 1 by filling out the application.

Wonder Woman, aka administrative assistant Amy Wander said, “I had no idea what I was getting into when I applied to be on the committee, I only knew it was something I had to do to better serve the teens I work with at the local juvenile detention center. The experience of being on the committee for me and the teens, who read and gave me feedback on the books, was such a great experience for all of us. We were introduced to many books and authors we most likely wouldn’t have come across on our own. It was very gratifying working with the committee members, others who were also passionate about their work with teens and introducing teens to good books and reading.”

The full selection list of 25 titles with annotations, information on our process of nomination and voting as well as a full list of our awesome committee members can be found at the Library Services for Youth in Custody website.

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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. I am extremely grateful that my first, self-published book “From Crack to College and Vice Versa” made the top 10 list. I put my heart and soul in that book with the hopes that someone will be positively impacted. I want to thank the In The Margins Committee for taking the time out to read my book and for understanding it’s worth. As for the youth who read this book, I leave this to you as an explanation for what went wrong within the Black community. It is a historical account of the crack epidemic, the repercussions, and the aftermath from the horse’s mouth. I am not rich, nor am I fully accomplished, but I felt and still feel I owed an explanation. As for any errors you see in the book, please consider them to be birthmarks. I worked with all I had.