Monster

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
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Content: There is some frank talk about what goes on in prison, the use of the n-word as well as f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Steve Harman is a 16-year-old black kid in Harlem who is in jail waiting trial for murder because of a drugstore robbery gone bad. He’s not the only one on trial; his “acquaintance” is also on trial for the same murder (I found myself wondering about the legality of this). Because Steve is an aspiring filmmaker, the book is written as a screenplay, covering the trial with flashbacks to Steve’s life as well as the night of the incident, interspersed with handwritten journal notes from Steve.

The most fascinating thing about the book, for me, wasn’t the format (which took a bit of getting used to). It was the way the story unfolded. We were basically the 13th juror, albeit with a bit more information, listening in on the trial from the opening arguments to the testimony and cross-examinations through the closing arguments. I don’t feel like Myers biased the reader in one direction or another (or maybe he did, wanting us to be more sympathetic to Steve), but instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.

On top of that, it’s a scathing look at the justice system. Sure, people are just doing their jobs, but when a 16-year-old kid ends up in an adult prison just because of who he knows, or what lawyer he can or can’t afford, when the guards don’t do much to protect the prisoners from each other… no wonder we need prison reform in this country!

It really was a fascinating and enlightening read, and I’m glad I did.

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Allegedly

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.”
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Content: There’s a lot going on here: drug use, (tasteful) sex, lots and lots of swearing, not to mention more mature themes. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mary Beth Addison was convicted at 9 years old for the murder of a baby, Alyssa. She never said a word in her interviews with detectives, and was convicted in the court of public opinion: some children, Mary being one of them, was just Bad. It didn’t help that the baby was white, and Mary is black.

Six years later, she’s out from “baby jail” (her words) on good behavior, and in a group house with five other teenage girls, convicted of crimes, some more major than others. She was just trying to survive until she met Ted and got pregnant. When she realizes that the state could take her baby away from her, she decides to take action: she wants to go to college, so she attempts to take the SATs. But, mostly, she finds her voice and decides to tell people what really happened the night Alyssa died.

This books was… a lot. Seriously. A LOT. So much to take in: a critique on parenting and poverty and the justice system and white privilege and teenage pregnancy and and and… It’s SO well written and so compelling, that even in its worst moments, when I, as a white woman, had to look at it and realize just how far from my lived experience this book was, and realize that there are people — KIDS — out there LIVING this experience, I could NOT put it down. It has a good mystery element to it as well — what really happened the night Alyssa was killed, and how can we really believe anyone’s testimony — but, as social critique, it’s superb. And it’s a great story as well. Jackson had me totally won over to Mary’s side, and yet left questions and doubts and open ends all the way to the very end.

Incredible.

Prisoner of Ice and Snow

by Ruth Lauren
First sentence: “Valor!”
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Content: There’s some violence and intense situations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

What lengths would you go, in order to save your sister?

Valor’s twin sister, Sasha, has been tried and convicted for stealing an important item from the palace, and sent to Demidova, a harsh prison made out of stone and ice Valor knows she can’t leave Sasha there; and so she gets arrested and sent to Demidova, with the sole purpose of escaping with her sister.

Of course it’s not as easy as walking in and waltzing out, and Valor will have to use every ounce of her skills of observation and archery, plus rely on the help of other prisoners in order to pull this off. If she even can.

So, I thought this book was a lot of fun. Great main character, and lots of interesting supporting characters. I’m not 100% sure on the diversity (I’m writing this several days after I finished it…); it may be a bit more white than it needed to be. But, I liked the loosely Russian feel of the book, and I especially liked the ending (which I won’t give away). It wrapped this one up nicely, but allowed for an opening for the sequel.

Solid middle grade fantasy.

Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson
First sentence: “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man.”
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Content: It’s intense, and there are some graphic elements, as well as swearing. It’s not for the tender-hearted (I had to put it down several times and read other books because I couldn’t handle the nature of the story). It’s in the adult non-fiction sections of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while as one I’d need to get around to reading. But what really prompted me to pick it up was listening to Serial. The two don’t really have a ton in common, but there are similarities. Both deal with minorities being imprisoned, mostly unjustly. Both are difficult, at times, to listen to/read. Both are important.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer from Harvard in the mid-80s when he went to Atlanta to do an internship there. He got involved with a death-penalty case in Alabama, where he determined that the man was accused falsely. Stevenson became involved in the case to the point where he started the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that advocates for people on death row, as well as for children and for those with mental disabilities who have been imprisoned for life.

I took away two things from this book: First, our justice system may work “as well as it can”, but that usually means “for those who can afford it.” If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear after reading this: our system is broke. It favors those who are white, those who are healthy, and those who are well off. Especially in the South. It saddened and depressed me that this isn’t history. This is happening in my lifetime, not in some distant past.

The second thing is that Stevenson is an incredibly hopeful individual. He’s practical, yes. But he’s also hopeful, and Christian, and just Good to do this work for people society — people like me — have written off. It makes me want to go out and give everyone I meet a second, or third, chance. Yes, there are people out there who are beyond hope, but I think, especially after reading this, that there aren’t that many people who are completely unredeemable.

It was a tough book, emotionally, for me to read (it didn’t help that I went and saw Selma while reading this as well). I cried a lot. My heart broke. And I had to think about the way I treat and judge people.

I am grateful that there are people like Stevenson out there doing this work. And I’m glad he wrote this book if only to make people like me more aware.