Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It's Magic
I teach literacy skills to boys in juvenile corrections settings. They range in age from thirteen to eighteen and have usually skipped, dropped out of, or been expelled from school. For them, school “sucks” and so does reading. They’re not thrilled to be in my class, considering they’ve lost their freedom and are forced to go to school—where they have to read a book.
“Yo, Miss!” says Pete*, a thirteen-year-old who can’t seem to stop twitching in front of the bookcase. “I’m not reading no book!”
But sustained silent reading is a requirement of the school day, and even Perpetual Motion Pete has to comply. I pull Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key from the shelf.
“You might like this one, Pete. It’s about a kid who’s got wicked ADHD and gets in trouble all the time. His parents are whacked, too, and his grandmother’s worse than he is. It’s really funny. Joey’s a good kid and doesn’t mean to cause trouble. So he tries medication and all kinds of crazy things happen.”
I pause for a minute. I turn to put the book back on the shelf.
“Wait,” Pete mumbles. “Let me see.”
I hand the book to him and start walking away, then throw a few well-aimed words over my shoulder.
“Oh, yeah. And the guy who wrote that book, Jack Gantos, did time when he was 19. He went to jail for smuggling dope, but after he got out he became a children’s book writer. He even wrote a book about his jail time.” I turn around and resume walking.
Pete’s hooked. “He did? Where’s that one?”
I go back and pull out Gantos’s autobiographical Hole in My Life, knowing the text is too difficult for Pete to read independently. He reads at a fourth-grade level. But Pete knows a mug shot when he sees one and compares young Gantos on that book cover to the photo of dapper adult-author Gantos on Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.
“We’re going to read Hole in My Life later in class, so why don’t you try Joey Pigza now?” I say. I don’t tell him that there are two other books in the Joey Pigza series, each one as funny and poignant as the first. I’ll play that card later.
A pinch of mystery here, a dash of drama there, feigned indifference sprinkled in. Stir well and wait. Pete nods and walks off, reading the book jacket as he goes.
I spend a lot of time buying and reading young adult and mid-grade books, trying to land such winning titles. When I found the fifteen-book Bluford High series, I knew I’d hit the juvenile detention jackpot. Written by Anne Schraff, Paul Langan, and various authors, the series is set in a contemporary California high school.
The characters are teenagers who flow in and out of one another’s stories: Ben and his no-good stepfather; Martin, who seeks revenge for his brother’s death; Darrell, who’s bullied; and Tyray, the bully.
My students relate readily to the teen characters’ conflicts of peer pressure, faltering parents, falling in love. Some also relate to the occasional violence and abuse. So they devour the Bluford High books. I even had to buy a second copy of each book because they started stealing them from one another.
But for some kids, even these high-interest novels are too difficult to read. So I hook them up to the CD player with headphones, an audiobook, and the text to go with it. Some fight me at first, as Mario does when I try to entice him to listen to an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo.
“Who cares about some dude named Crisco? I don’t want to listen to that!”
Mario spends the first day trying to switch from the audiobook to the radio while I’m not looking. But by the next afternoon, the count’s story of betrayal and revenge wins out. Mario forgets about the radio.
Then there are the boys who really surprise me, who go beyond the standard urban teen fiction to books I never think they’ll enjoy. There’s Shaquille, who at 6’3” almost mirrors his NBA namesake in size. He reads the unabridged Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and declares them more “official” than the watered-down Disney versions.
Or tiny, eighteen-year-old Savhon, a gangbanger who’s never read any book before—in his native Khmer or in English. Savhon picks up a Danielle Steel novel that someone donated and is entranced. Six months and many yard sales later, I’ve brought him ten Steel novels, and he’s read every one.
“I didn’t know things could work out good for people,” he says. “They get happy. I like that.”
Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Lemony Snicket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—these teenage boys wouldn’t touch such books “on the out.” Here, in the safety and security of a supportive, small-group environment, they do.
But unlike the enchanted Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the books don’t just find the boys and declare themselves a match. They need a little assistance, which is where I come in. Helping the boys improve their reading skills is my job. Yet that’s not why I peddle books, why I do the mixing and matching to find just the right one for each boy, no matter how unwilling he is. I do it because I love to read—to be transported from my world into the heart and fabric of another.
And it’s magic. Nothing gives me greater joy than to see a boy—especially one of these boys—lost in a book. Because I know that’s where he’ll find himself, maybe for the first time ever.
* All the boys’ names have been changed in this piece.
Lauren Norton Carson lives in Boston, where she writes and teaches teenage boys in a juvenile corrections program. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, she says of her students: “They give me a great deal of trouble, and I enjoy it very much.”
Lauren won Honorable Mention in the 76th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition in Children’s Fiction and Mainstream Fiction, and Second Place Flash Fiction in the 2010 Seven Hills Literary Contest. Her essays have appeared in Skirt! magazine and Academic Pediatrics Journal.
*Photo at top by Flickr user Marc Samsom