June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Book Club at Camp Glenwood, A Minimum-Security Facility for Boys


On Tuesday nights a small group of teenage boys incarcerated at Camp Glenwood gather in a circle for their weekly book club. The club’s leader, Kris Cannon, a retired high school librarian, asks “What do you think about this book?” The question is empowering, she says. “Where else does someone ask for their opinion and truly listen? The book club is a safe environment for them to express themselves.”

On any given week, the boys discuss books such as Jarvis Jay Masters’s Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (Padma, 1997), Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here (Delacorte, 2009), or Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Place to Stand (Grove, 2001),―true-life accounts of those who’ve been in trouble with the law.

The camp is no sleep-away adventure, but rather a minimum security court school facility for 25 boys nestled in a remote Redwood forest in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. Teenage boys convicted of crimes are assigned here by the county’s juvenile justice system for an average of nine months to a year. They commit to participating in this educational and behavioral program aimed at turning their lives around. If they’re successful, they’re able to return to their regular high school.

Although there are no fences or locked doors in this outdoor setting, the boys are closely supervised and have a regimented program with assigned chores and classes. They don’t get a lot of choices during their incarceration, but the book club is one they get to make freely, many choosing to attend rather than play basketball.

They want to read books about “something real—about people who have made it after being in trouble,” says Cannon, who has a long history of leading book clubs. In her 18 years as a high school librarian, she routinely led book clubs at the school library for students at each grade level and for ESL students. When she retired, she became a school library services consultant at the San Mateo County Office of Education, where one of her responsibilities was overseeing services for the court and community schools, and she found herself drawn to the needs of these students.

Kris Cannon

Book club leader Kris Cannon.

“These kids are our kids just like the ones I had seen in high school, but they just didn’t make it,” she says. “They got in trouble, may have had family problems and slipped through the cracks.” Starting a book club for them, which she has been running as a volunteer for five years, was a natural outgrowth of her attachment to the students. They know she’s a volunteer. “I tell them I’m only here because I want to come and I want you to read,” she says.

The students, who have a range of reading abilities, are welcome to attend so long as they follow Cannon’s rules: show up consistently once a week for six weeks, attempt to read at least some of the book the group chooses, show respect for one another in their discussion, and refrain from engaging in side conversations.

“I don’t know anything about why they’re here,” says Cannon. “It could be drug use, assault, or gang involvement. I do know that I’m committed to serving them and they respond beautifully. They don’t want to be locked up, but this is something extra that I can give them that’s real and meaningful for them.”

Cannon begins each six-week session by choosing the first book and then lets the students decide what to read next. Memoirs and biographies are most popular, and author appearances are common.

One popular choice was A Piece of Cake, (Crown, 2006), a memoir by Cupcake Brown, now an attorney, who at age 11 lived on the streets and became involved in gangs and prostitution. Brown came to speak at Camp Glenwood. One boy had asked Cannon, “Do you think she would come to our book club? Would you ask her?” Cannon looked him in the eye and said, “You go ask her. Look at you. You’re an African American boy who’s incarcerated who cares about her book. I’m a white woman, school teacher-librarian. Who do you think she’s going to connect with?”

He did. When Brown visited, the boys baked her cupcakes and bombarded her with questions: “Did you really belong to the Crips (a primarily African American gang)? How can you remember all those words to write down? What was it like to get shot? How much money did you make from writing this book?”

Walter Dean Myers, author of many award-winning works of nonfiction and urban fiction, including books about gangs and arrests, is also popular. Reading Myers’s biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (Scholastic, 1993), opened the boys’ eyes to the history of the Black Power movement. Jack Gantos’s Hole in My Life (Farrar, 2002) along with Masters’s Finding Freedom, are also hits.

As in any class, there are some strong readers and others who are barely literate. Some become readers because it’s what they can do in their free time while incarcerated. “Every now and then, a student will tell me this was the first time he had ever read a whole book, or [say] ‘I wasn’t a good reader before but now I love reading,’” notes Cannon.

At the end of the six-week book club session, Cannon hosts a celebration and each participant receives a certificate, complete with a gold seal. “It gives them a sense of completion,” she notes. “And it’s something they can show to the judge.”

Too often, Cannon says, boys leave Camp Glenwood, get in trouble again, and return. “Sometimes they just face insurmountable problems and return home to the same family situation and environment they left.” But she continues to lead the book club because “[It] gives these boys a glimmer of hope and opens their minds to possibilities beyond incarceration.”

Rosenthal-Lisa_Contrib_WebLisa Rosenthal is a freelance education journalist based in Burlingame, Calif.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Great article about teaching those who really need it. I am currently reading Mission High and it shows how a school can standout and succeed even when the odds are against them. Ms. Cannon is a great teacher with an eye and heart for those who want to open their minds through literature. Bravo to her and the court program which provides for this type of instruction.

    • Aline Kaprive says:

      I admire you so much Kris. You are funny, inspirational and absolutely terrific! You work miracles with our youth. Thank you so much for all that you do for the students. You are truly a gem and give so much to these young men, thank you for being you!!

  2. Molly Estrella says:

    Amazing! Great woman and educator! How fortunate these young men are you have Kris Cannon to introduce them to literature!.

  3. Nancy Butte says:

    What a fantastic program. I wish more quality people cared about these kids who fall between the cracks and get themselves in trouble. Ms. Cannon has a heart for books and for kids. Bravo!!!

  4. A great book to add to this phenomenal program is This Ain’t What You Want by Jabar.