Deborah Ellis, activist and award-winning author of The Breadwinner interviews young people involved in the criminal justice system and lets them tell their own stories.
Jamar found refuge in a gang after leaving an abusive home where his mother stole from him. Fred was arrested for assault with a weapon, public intoxication and attacking his mother while on drugs. Jeremy first went to court at age fourteen (“Court gives you the feeling that you can never make up for what you did, that you’re just bad forever”) but now wears a Native Rights hat to remind him of his strong Métis heritage. Kate, charged with petty theft and assault, finally found a counselor who treated her like a person for the first time.
Many readers will recognize themselves, or someone they know, somewhere in these stories. Being lucky or unlucky after making a mistake. The encounter with a mean cop or a good one. Couch-surfing, or being shunted from one foster home to another. The kids in this book represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities. Every story is different, but there are common threads — loss of parenting, dislocation, poverty, truancy, addiction, discrimination. The book also includes the points of view of family members as well as “voices of experience” — adults looking back at their own experiences as young offenders.
Most of all, this book leaves readers asking the most pressing questions of all. Does it make sense to put kids in jail? Can’t we do better? Have we forgotten that we were once teens ourselves, feeling powerless to change our lives, confused about who we were and what we wanted, and quick to make a move without a thought for the consequences?
Key Text Features
Correlates to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts:
Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.
Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.
In this eye-opening compilation, based on original interviews, Ellis (the Breadwinner series) allows Canadian young people who have experience with the criminal justice system to tell their own stories. In addition to a young person's story, each chapter includes relevant research rates of suicide and drug overdose for homeless youth, the high percentage of high school dropouts who do jail time. Sidebars include probing questions ("If your parents are not good role models, what can you do to find other mentors?"), and "Taking Steps" sections suggest positive, practical actions. While the young peoples' family structures, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, gender, and sexual orientation vary greatly, common themes recur: domestic violence; foster care and group homes; early exposure to alcohol, drugs, and criminal behavior; and frequent moves and repeated school transfers. Stories also relay the powerful effect that kindness from teachers, foster parents, cops, and counselors can have on an individual's ability to sustain hope, and they also make clear the benefits of alternatives such as diversion programs, which offer an opportunity to avoid a criminal record, and the restorative justice process, rooted in indigenous cultures. Ellis deftly combines heartbreaking recollections, stories of recovery, and concrete suggestions for cultivating resilience, while making a powerful argument for breaking cycles of trauma by investing in preventive measures. Ages 12 up. \n