Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Bibliographic Information: Gantos, J. (2002). Hole in My Life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).  ISBN: 0374399883.  208 pages.

Plot/Content Summary: Sometimes a person does not realize that he is making a huge mistake until it is too late.  Sometimes a person forgets to think about the consequences of his actions.  Jack Gantos, now an accomplished author of books for pre-teens (including the Joey Pigza series), was in his late teens when he made a mistake that would change his life.  In the early 1970’s $10,000 could buy even more than it can now, and that it what Gantos was promised as a payment if he could help a man sail a boat full of hashish from The Caribbean island of St. Croix to New York City.  “I didn’t think of the danger involved with braking the law.  I didn’t even consider that I had no idea how to sail a large boat…that anything bad could possible happen.”  But we know something bad did happen, because Gantos opens the book with a discussion of his time in prison and the fear of random violence he lived with every moment of every day.  Always interested in becoming a writer, but never following through, Gantos also started writing in earnest while he was in prison.  This memoir was not his first or even second book, it was published over 30 years after he started his life in prison, but his words describe his past life as if the visceral memories or not, in any way, forgotten.

Critical Evaluation: Gantos’ voice is honest and frank.  He manages to tell his story with a careful balance to the point of almost being objective.  He’s not self-aggrandizing or egomaniacal nor is he overly self-deprecating, all traps into which memoir writers can fall.  Gantos’ story is compelling, and though, as mentioned above, readers know from the start (the front cover shows his mugs hot) that Gantos will end up in prison, the path to get there take enough twists and turns that the story is still suspenseful and engaging.  There are parts of the story that could probably have been edited a bit to speed up the pace, it felt a little long at times, but overall this book is well worth the read.  There are many episodes from Gantos’ life that could inspire interesting and exciting class, book group, or family discussions.  There are lessons to be learned from Gantos, not because he preaches and not because he feels sorry for himself, but because he earns his readers’ respect through sometimes brutal honesty and his willingness to make himself vulnerable and open for to truly see him and learn from his mistakes.

Reader’s Annotation: In the early 1970’s, Jack in Gantos was an aspiring writer who didn’t have the money he needed to attend college, and he was in a job he hated.  So, when he was offered $10,000 to help sail a shipment of drugs from the Caribbean to New York City he said, “Count me in.”

Information about the Author: Jack Gantos is an award-winning author of children’s, tween young adult, and adult books.  As a child he wanted to become a writer, in fact, according to his website, “The seeds for Jack Gantos’ writing career were planted in sixth grade, when he read his sister’s diary and decided he could write better than she could.”

It was in college that Gantos published his first children’s book; he received a BA and an MA from Emerson College in Boston.  At Emerson he became an instructor in children’s book writing and eventually created a masters program in children’s book writing.  Gantos also taught at Vermont College in the M.F.A. program for children’s book writers.  “He now devotes his time to writing books and educational speaking.” (Jack Gantos’ Bio & Photos)

Genre/Category: Non-Fiction, Coming of Age, Suspense, Crime

Topics Covered: Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse, Illegal Activities, Incarceration, Growing Up, Coming of Age

Curriculum Ties: Health, Responsible Decision Making, Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse

Booktalking Ideas:

  • The immense and intense fear Gantos felt in prison
  • Can one mistake ruin your whole life?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14 and up

Challenge Issues: Drug Use, Alcohol Abuse, Drug Selling, Illegal Activities.

Why is this book included? Hole in my Life won the Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert honors; it is a compelling and moving story of a young man facing himself and not liking what he sees sometimes.  It is non-fiction with all of the drama of fiction and the emotional honesty only a memoir can provide.  In other words, it’s a great book, and a great addition to a non-fiction section for young adults.

References:

Gantos, J. (n.d.). Jack Gantos’ Bio & Photos.  Retrieved from http://www.jackgantos.com.vhost.zerolag.com/bio-photos/

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Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Bibliographic Information: Myers, W.D. (1999). Monster. New York, NY: Harper Tempest.  ISBN: 0064407314.  281 pages.

Plot Summary: Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial, as an adult, for felony murder.  He’s terrified. The prosecutor calls him and his co-defendant “monsters.” But, is he a monster, or is he innocent, as he claims? Steve is accused of being the lookout man in a convenience store robbery that ends with the murder of the store owner. But was he there? Uniquely presented in Steve’s voice, the book consists of first person journal entries as well as a movie script-style of story telling, complete with blocking and camera directions. Steve reports on what prison is like, how his trial is progressing and he looks back on the day the events took place.  Dealing with the complexities of racism, poverty, peer pressure, and freedom, readers will experience how painstakingly difficult the jury’s job is as they try to distinguish honorable from self-serving motives and truths from lies.

Critical Evaluation: Compelling and intense, Monster paints a picture of a young boy struggling with right and wrong, prejudice, and the pressure to belong. The honest first person accounts, and movie script-style, give the book authenticity and interest and draw the reader in to the story.  Myers uses realistic language and sets the scene with honesty and integrity.  Many teens will relate to various elements in Steve’s struggles, teens who have been incarcerated or who have committed crimes will hear themselves in some of Steve’s words.  The depths of Steve’s troubles give the reader empathy for his predicament as well as ambivalence about the crimes he is accused of committing. This book is better suited to more mature teens, due to its heavy subject matter, violence, and references to sexual assault in prison.  Monster received numerous awards and honors including: Michael L. Printz Award Winner 2000, Edgar Award nomination for Best Young Adult Mystery 2000, Coretta Scott King Award Honor 2000, National Book Award Finalist 1999, ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults 2000, ALA’s Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Readers 2000.

Reader’s Annotation: The maximum length of the annotation should be no more than two sentences

Information about the Author:  Walter Dean Myers has written somewhere around 100 books, mostly young adult realistic fiction. He has also written children’s picture books and nonfiction.

He was born in West Virginia, in August 1932 and was raised in Harlem, New York.  Myers dropped out of high school, but not before a teacher who recognized his writing talent, told him to “keep writing no matter what happened to [him.]”  He also loved basketball, which plays a role in several of his novels.  He calls his teen years the most difficult years of his life, and draws his writing inspiration from these years.

Genre: Issues, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Alternative Formats, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction

Sub Genres & Themes: Issues: Social Concerns: Crime and Criminals; Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: Contemporary Mystery; Alternative Formats: Mixed Formats

Curriculum Ties: Social Studies

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Discuss Steve’s predicament, what would YOU do?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14-18

Challenge Issues: Crime, Murder, Violence.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.  Also, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won several awards and honors, three are mentioned above.

Why is this book included? Hailed by critics, I chose to include Monster for its excellent writing and compelling storyline as well as several awards and nominations, as noted above.  I am also a big fan of Walter Dean Myers, so I wanted to include a title of his in my blog.  Monster was published in 1999, but the story of Steve’s struggles is timeless, and will continue to be current for many years to come. Additionally, Monster depicts an African American teen, providing much-needed ethnic diversity to the teen Mystery genre.


The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

Bibliographic Information: Souljah, S. (1999). The Coldest Winter Ever. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.  ISBN: 7671400799.  413 pages.

Plot Summary: Winter was living the life!  She lived with her mother, father and sisters in the projects in Brooklyn, but never wanted for anything.  Her father, the leader of a prominent drug dealing operation, spoiled her with fancy jewelry, clothes, and things.  The cold winter night she was born, he gave her a diamond ring.  Winter’s mother was beautiful and stylish and knew how to get what she wanted from her man.  Winter, was interested in boys, and she learned a lot from her mother about how the world worked.  Life was going along fine in Brooklyn when Winter’s father decided they should move to a large home in the suburbs.  Things changed for Winter in her 17th year.  She had a new school, which she went to only when she felt like it.  She missed her extended family and friends from the projects, and then things started to take a turn for the worse.  Can Winter survive the coldest Winter ever?  At what cost?

Critical Evaluation: Souljah captures the language and the feel of the streets in this honest and frank novel.  Winter minces no words when she speaks of her life and her desires, and Souljah does not hold back in her dramatic and sometimes shocking portrayal of Winter in this coming of age novel.  Souljah has a definite message in this book; she advocates self respect, respect for one’s body, one’s family, one’s community.  She wants young people to recognize the dangers of drugs and violence and stay away from them.  She packages her message in a story using language that many young people can relate to, the gritty vernacular of urban Brooklyn and beyond.  Those offended by expletives should stay away, but without the raw, real language this novel’s authenticity would be potentially suspect.  Throughout it all Souljah’s message, which she espouses both as an author and a real-life activist, remains strong and steady.  As evidence of its longevity and appeal, this book is on the ALA’s 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list.

Reader’s Annotation: Seventeen year old Winter lives a life of excess, thanks to the many material possessions provided to her by her father, a prominent drug dealer.  When her life gets turned upside down, Winter must figure out which direction to go.

Information about the Author: In addition to being an author, Sister Souljah is a hip hop artist, an activist, an educator, and a powerful speaker.  She grew up in the projects in Bronx, New York, and “is a fighter who came up from the bottom.”  Some credit Souljah with reviving the Urban Literature genre in 1999 with The Coldest Winter Ever, as the genre had been in some decline in the late 1980’s early 1990’s.  Some believe that hip hop music was becoming the expression of choice for urban youth, thus pushing urban fiction aside, but The Coldest Winter Ever has sold over a million copies all over the world and, though it is over 20 years old, is still being sold today.

Genre: Issues, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction

Category: Issues: Social Concerns: Crime and Criminals

Topics Covered: Drug Use, Illegal Activities, Sexuality, Family, Incarceration, Violence, Socio-economic status, Friendship

Curriculum Ties: Health Education, Social Studies, English

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Description of Winter’s lavish lifestyle from the beginning of the book
  • Character analysis of Winter

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15-19

Challenge Issues: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Explicit Language.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.

Why is this book included? This book speaks to young people, and it speaks the language of young people.  The young people who hear their voices or lives reflected in The Coldest Winter Ever are underrepresented in novels.  A good collection includes a diversity of voices and perspectives for those reflected in a work and those learning a new perspective from a work.  This work is a classic in urban fiction, and is still very popular today.