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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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.


Testimony by Anita Shreve

Bibilographic Information: Shreve, A. (2008). Testimony. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.  ISBN: 0316059862.  320 pages.

Plot Summary:  One night can change everything.  At an elite boarding school in Vermont, students and administrators get caught up in a scandal that damages many lives.  The scandal involves sex, underage drinking, and a video camera, almost always an ill-advised combination, and this time with dramatic and devastating consequences.  When the headmaster gets the forbidden video, a sex tape involving four students: three boys on the school basketball team and one freshman girl, he struggles with what to do about it.  He knows the power it has to ruin many lives as well as the reputation of the prestigious prep school, Avery Academy.  And why did they do it?  Who is responsible?  How many people’s lives will be affected?  Told from the multiple, unique perspectives of individual players in this drama, including the headmaster, the involved students, and their families, the story unfolds to reveal secrets, lies, and the circumstances behind that ill-fated evening.

Critical Evaluation: Gripping and thrilling, Testimony is a hard book to put down.  when the teen sex tape is initially revealed, while shocking and disturbing, the depth of complexity because of its existence is not obvious at first glance.  As Shreve weaves a web of betrayal, bad judgement, shame, and regret, questions arise, about what to do with the grey area presented in the book.  Shreve’s characters are multifaceated.  This complexity does not allow the reader, for example, to simply label the freshman girl on the sex tape a victim, as, by many accounts, she seemed a consensual participant.  And yet, she was younger and outnumbered by the three basketball players on the tape, who were older and much physically larger than she.  Shreve demonstrates that questions of morality and ethics are not always straightforward or obvious, but are nuanced and dependent on an individual’s particular perspective.  She also demonstrates that a single mistake can have far reaching consequences.  Overall, Testimony is entertaining, thought-provoking and great fodder for class discussions or book group meetings.

Reader’s Annotation: High school students, underage drinking, sex, and a video camera are an ill-advised combination.  At an elite Vermont prep school these elements, in one evening, result in dramatic and devastating consequences.

Information about the Author: Award winning writer Anita Shreve has written 13 novels.  The play The Laramie Project as well as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying inspired Shreve to use multiple perspectives in her novel Testimony (from www.anitashereve.com).

Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction

Topics Covered: Alcohol Abuse, Sexuality, Infidelity

Curriculum Ties: Health Science Topics: Sexuality, Substance Abuse, Suicide

Booktalking Ideas: Sienna’s first piece, Silas’ first piece

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15-19 to Adult (Crossover)

Challenge Issues: Sexuality is discussed and sex acts are described, underage drinking, sexual abuse.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.

Why is this book included? While it is technically an adult novel, Testimony is about events that happen at a high school.  It is told from numerous characters’ perspectives, including many of the teens.  The young voices are authentic, and the novel is gripping from start to finish.

References:

(2009). Anita Shreve: Biography. Retrieved from http://www.anitashreve.com/