Precious directed by Lee Daniels

Bibliographic Information: Daniels, L. (director). 2009. Precious, Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (DVD). Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate.  ASIN: B002VECM4A.  110 minutes, Movie Rating: R.

Plot Summary: Clarisse “Precious” Jones is sixteen, pregnant, illiterate and living a life of unimaginable horror and suffering.  The physical and emotional abuse, that Precious endures at the hands of her mother is so brutally and meanly inflicted, that most viewers will wonder how a person could be so incredibly cruel.  Precious lives with her mother. Her father only appears every so often, and his visits resulted in the rape and impregnation of his daughter Precious.  The depths of abuse and cruelty leveled at  Precious might make another person crumble, but she pushes forward. She keeps trying to make a life for herself, dreaming, in beautifully filmed fantasy sequences, of being a much adored star.  When she is kicked out of her high school for being pregnant, Precious attends an alternative school. There, Precious has a teacher who believes in her students, often when they do not even believe in themselves. At her new school, Precious finally learns to read and write and she literally and figuratively finds her voice.

Critical Evaluation: This film is intense.  I expect that people familiar with the type of abuse and suffering Precious is subjected to, could experience some level of post traumatic stress.  Others, who have been fortunate enough not to have experience with this level of cruelty and brutality will likely find themselves in disbelief.  But, there is something about the acting and directing and scenery and dialogue that forces us to look at Precious’s life and recognize that there are people who suffer in similar ways.  Even those viewers who do not want to believe will be hard pressed not to, given the gritty realism of the film.  There is sadness and such devastating circumstances that viewers could become overwhelmed by emotion, but there is a tempering force.  Precious is strong, sometimes witty and often triumphant, and these moments, make worthwhile the viewer’s endurance of the suffering in the movie.

Critics loudly applauded this film; it received numerous awards and nominations, fifty film organizations nominated Precious for a variety of awards, the film won several of these.  Here are some highlights:

  • The 2010 Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Mo’Nique (Won); Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Geoffrey Fletcher (Won); Best Picture, Precious (Nominated); Best Director, Lee Daniels (Nominated); Best Actress, Gabourey Sidibe (Nominated); Best Film Editing, Joe Klotz (Nominated)
  • The 2010 Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Precious (Nominated); Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture – Drama, Gabourey Sidbie (Nominated); Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture, Mo’Nique (Won)
  • Independent Spirit Awards: Best Feature, Precious (Won); Best Director, Lee Daniels (Won); Best Female Lead, Gabourey Sidibe (Won); Best Supporting Female, Mo’Nique (Won); Best First Screenplay, Geoffrey Fletcher (Won)
  • NAACP Image Awards: Outstanding Motion Picture, Precious (Won); Outstanding Independent Motion Picture, Precious (Won); Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Gabourey Sidibe (Won); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, Mo’Nique (Won); Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture, Geoffrey Fletcher (Won); Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television), Lee Daniels (Won); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, Mariah Carey (Nominated) and Paula Patton (Nominated); Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Lenny Kravitz (Nominated)

An extensive list of awards and nominations for the film can be found here.

Reader’s/Viewer’s Annotation: Abused and ignored Clarisse “Precious” Jones is sixteen, pregnant, and illiterate.  When she gets kicked out of school for being pregnant, she starts attending an alternative school, with a teacher who believes in her, and her journey toward a life of her own begins.

Information about the Author/Director: In addition to being a director, Lee Daniels is an actor and a film producer.  Notably, he produced the highly acclaimed film Monster’s Ball for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress Academy Award and which won the Best Screenplay Academy Award as well (Lee Daniels, n.d.).

Genres: Drama

Curriculum Ties: Discussions of poverty, abuse, acceptance, self-respect, self-esteem

Reading/Viewing Level/Interest Age: Ages 14 to adult

Challenge Issues: Violence; Emotional Sexual, and Physical Abuse; Mature Language.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.

Why is this film included? While this movie is difficult to watch and painful at times, it also sends a message of hope and the strength of the human spirit.  It is feels frightening real and provides a voice to Precious, and other young women, who deserve to have their voices heard.

References:

Lee Daniels. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Daniels


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.


The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

Bibliographic Information: Flake, S. (1998). The Skin i’m in. New York, NY: Jump at the Sun, Hyperion. ISBN: 1423103858. 171 pages.

Plot Summary: Maleeka Madison’s life is not easy.  Her mother has been mourning the death of Maleeka’s father for the past two years, leaving Maleeka, a seventh grader, responsible for more than someone her age should be.  Her dark skin; tall, skinny frame; and homemade clothing are fodder for the harsh critics that are her school classmates.  And her small group of “friends,” lead by the most popular and feared girl in school, are only there due to Maleeka’s book smarts that help them pass their courses.  And then comes the new teacher, Miss Saunders, an African American woman with a large white birthmark across her face.  Miss Saunders seems to see Maleeka for who she really is, a sensitive, intelligent girl doing the best she can in difficult circumstances.  But, Miss Saunders expects great things from Maleeka, and will not settle for less, she encourages Maleeka to write and express herself.  “Miss Saunders loves the skin she’s in.  Can Maleeka learn to do the same?” (from The Skin i’m in, back cover).

Critical Evaluation: Maleeka’s struggle to accept herself and find her place in an often cruel world is authentic and moving.  Through Flake, Maleeka’s voice is sensitive and strong and draws the reader in to her complicated world.  The Skin i’m in is Flakes first book, and she has gone on to write other well-received and significant works.  Highly praised by critics, The Skin i’m in’s many awards and honors include: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Publishers Weekly Author to Watch, New York Public Library Top Ten Book for the Teen Age, YALSA Best Books for Young Adult Readers, YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.  This book provides an important perspective and voice that is often underrepresented.  The book not only addresses on racism and bullying, but also brings up the issue of colorism or skin tone bias within the African American community.  Providing hope without being trite, The Skin i’m in would provide substantial subject matter for both classroom and book group discussions.

Reader’s Annotation: Maleeka is considered to tall, skinny, and dark-skinned by her classmates.  When Miss Saunders, the unlikely new teacher, comes to Maleeka’s school she has something to teach Maleeka that she will not find in her school books.

Information about the Author: Sharon Flake is an  acclaimed and celebrated author of young adult literature, but she is so much more.  She wants young people to learn to love themselves for who they are, to dream, and to follow their passions.  Here is the text from the page on her website entitled “4U” from (http://www.sharongflake.com/4u/).

A Message4U

As you read my novels, believe that you can do and accomplish more than you know. After all, you have so many gifts, so many talents, so many opportunities to accomplish what you will. You’re human, so you’ll make mistakes along the way. We all do. But don’t you dare give up on you. Forget the haters. Forgive yourself and others. Brush yourself off and start over again if things don’t work out the way you planned.

I felt scared and little most of my life, so I know what it feels like to push past your fears and learn to see yourself differently. If I can do it, so can you. After all, you are the hope for the future, the promise that everything will be okay if we just don’t quit on ourselves or one another.

Hope. Dream. Believe.

Laugh a little.

Work hard (nothing gets accomplished without hard work). And watch what happens: you’re begin to see what many of us have known about you all along—you can do incredible things and have a remarkable life.

Just Hope. Dream. Believe. I do.

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

Category: Issues: Social Concerns: Racism

Topics Covered: Racism, Colorism, Bullying, Friendship, Family, Sexual Harassment

Curriculum Ties: English, Social Studies

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Describe Maleeka’s friendship with Charlese

Reading Level/Interest Age: 12 – 16

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? Authentic multicultural portrayals have an important place in a library’s collection.  Though this book is about a seventh grader, the topics are relevant for younger as well as older readers.  The reading level is appropriate for older readers and reluctant readers who need more accessible books with interesting and relevant subject matter.  The book is also an excellent piece of literature, was well-reviewed and received several awards (see above “Critical Evaluation”).

References:

Shea, L. (2004). Editors shelf. Multicultural Review, 13(4), 14-24.


The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Bibliographic Information: Johnson, A. (2003). The First Part Last. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.  ISBN: 0689849222.  144 pages.

Plot Summary: Sixteen-year-old Bobby did not mean to become a father at such a young age, but he is, and his life will never be the same.  Switching back and forth between “then,” before the baby was born and “now,” after his daughter Feather’s arrival into the world, The First Part Last tells the story of Bobby’s transition from regular old teenager to teen dad.  Before Feather is born, Bobby and his pregnant girlfriend Nia are pressured by many of the adults in their lives to put the baby up for adoption, and the young soon-to-be parents want to do the right thing for their child, but what is the right thing?  And is the right thing for their baby the same as the right thing for them?  Bobby is conflicted and confused, but when Feather is in his arms Bobby realizes that he has never seen a more perfect being and he has never felt more love for anyone.  Ever.

Critical Evaluation: The First Part Last is a touching and down-to-earth story, which starts with a beautiful front cover image depicting a young African American man gently holding an infant in his arms.  Johnson’s writing is warm and imbued with emotion.  Her ability to present an authentic perspective of an urban male teen is laudable, and her tender depictions of Bobby and Feather together are heartwarming.  Bobby is presented as a regular 16-year-old kid with friends, and school, and a girlfriend but also as a young man who is gentle, sweet, loving, and completely dedicated to his infant daughter.  Navigating his different roles and different worlds is tricky; it is hard being a teen dad.  Bobby is exhausted, staying up nights with his baby.  But, Bobby’s loving descriptions of Feather’s hands and her smell and how soft the curls on the top of her head are when he kisses her bring readers into the room, feeling what he is feeling.  Many of Johnson’s passages are poetic.  A person would be hard pressed not to empathize with Bobby and hope everything works out well for him and Feather.  Winner of the 2004 Coretta Scott King Book Award and the 2004 Michael L. Printz Award.

Reader’s Annotation: At sixteen, Bobby goes to high school and hangs out with his good friends.  He never imagined he’d be a father already, and it’s a hard job, but when he takes his daughter Feather into his arms he realizes his enormous capacity for love.

Information about the Author: Angela Johnson has always loved books and being read aloud to, as she says, “Book people came to life,” (http://aalbc.com/authors/angela.htm).  So, it is no wonder that she started writing in her diary as a child and has continued writing ever since.

In 1998, Johnson wrote Heaven, a Coretta Scott King Award Winning novel that contains the characters of Bobby and Feather.  The events of Heaven, though written before, take place after the events of The First Part Last.  In Heaven, Bobby and Feather become friends with main character Marley.  Bobby and Feather’s family history is not expanded upon in Heaven, so Heaven readers who were intrigued by those characters have the chance to learn more in The First Part Last.  Likewise, readers who enjoyed The First Part Last get to see the next stage in the lives, albeit with less detail, of Bobby and Feather in Heaven.

Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction

Subgenre/Theme: Issues: Physical, Mental, and Emotional Concerns: Pregnancy and Teen Parents

Topics Covered: Teen Pregnancy, Sexuality, Parenthood, Fatherhood, Coming of Age, Growing Up

Curriculum Ties: English, Personal Narrative

Booktalking Ideas:

  • You are 16 years old and you are told that in nine months you are going to be a parent.  Pause…  What do you do?  How do feel?
  • Read one of the passages where Bobby describes Feather, ask questions about that.  Does he sound like your average 16-year-old?  Why? Why not?  Does he love her?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15 -19

Challenge Issues: Teen sex, teen pregnancy, some adult language.  In response to any challenges, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won two prestigious awards from the American Library Association: Coretta Scott King and Michael L. Printz.

Why is this book included? I read and enjoyed Heaven, which is for a slightly younger audience, and was excited to find that Johnson has also written this award-winning book for teens.  Also, It is important for a collection to tell many different stories from many different perspectives.  The First Part Last provides the unique perspective of a teen father raising his baby daughter.


Tyrell by Coe Booth

Bibliographic Information: Booth, C. (2006). Tyrell. New York, NY: Push Fiction.  ISBN,  9780439838801.  310 pages.

Plot Summary: Fifteen-year-old Tyrell does not have what anyone would call an easy life.  His father is in prison for illegal activities he participated in trying to earn money to pay the ret and put food on the family’s dinner table.  His mother seems unable, or unwilling,  to provide for or even take care of either of her two sons; Tyrell seems to be the only one looking out for his seven-year-old brother, Troy.  The family’s financial problems are so dire that they can’t make the rent payments on their apartment in the projects, and, so their shelter is being provided by the New York City Emergency Assistance Unit.  Tyrell calls it “the E-A-U,” and it is not a place he or anyone he knows wants to be living.  But, living there, Tyrell is, in the roach-infested Bennett Motel, “The place look like a bombed-out building from the outside, like something you see in them war movies.  Inside it ain’t no better.  The place stink like old sneakers, probably ‘cause there ain’t no fresh air in here,” (Booth, 2006, p. 19).

At the EAU Tyrell meets Jasmine, a teenage girl in an equally difficult family situation.  Tyrell and Jasmine hit it off, they can understand each other in ways Tyrell’s other friends cannot, and Tyrell finds Jasmine extremely attractive.  But this attraction is complicated by the fact that Tyrell loves his girlfriend, Novisha, very much and has his whole future planned out with her.  Confused by his feelings and living in chaos, Tyrell has a lot on his mind, too much, in fact, for him to bother going to school, a place that he feels is useless.  But, even with all of these obstacles, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some money and get his family an apartment.  Is Tyrell a survivor?  Will his plan work?

Critical Evaluation: Written in the language of the streets, Tyrell, portrays a stark and harsh world, where a fifteen-year-old is left with way more responsibility than he should have.  The indignities and difficulties of homelessness are palpable and Booth’s descriptions of settings provide realistic and disturbing images of the reality that families like Tyrell’s face daily.  The story was born of Booth’s experiences as a caseworker, helping families in crisis in New York City, lending it authenticity and veracity.  Tyrell’s voice is strong and presents his conflicts in a such a genuine way that readers will likely feel connected to Tyrell and those who have been where he is will hear themselves in his voice, and readers who have not experienced what Tyrell is going through will wonder, “what would I do in that situation?”  The words in this novel are carefully chosen and put together.  The characters are multi-dimensional, their complexity parallels the complexity of Tyrell’s world, a world beautifully and painfully rendered in Booth’s novel.  My one concern about the story is that Tyrell’s mother is portrayed in a stereotypical way as lazy and neglectful and someone who takes advantage of the system.  While I do not doubt that there are people who fit this description, it is important to point this out, to make sure that a collection contains a diversity of books that portray urban life, so readers have a chance to see a variety of characters and situations.  Additionally, this issue, as well as many of the books’ themes, would make excellent class or book group discussion topics.

Reader’s Annotation: Homeless and broke, fifteen-year-old Tyrell doesn’t have it easy.  With his father in prison and his mother is in denial, it seems up to him to care for his seven-year-old little brother and navigate New York City’s social services agencies.

Information about the Author: Coe Booth grew up in the Bronx, NY, and held several jobs working to help families in crisis in the Bronx.  The story of Tyrell was inspired by real teens Booth knew and helped, and the book Tyrell grew out of a writing assignment for a creative writing class.

Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction

Subgenres/Themes: Issues: Life is Hard: Homelessness and Foster Living

Topics Covered: Homelessness, Poverty, Truancy, Love, Racism, Incarceration, sexuality

Curriculum Ties: Social Science

Booktalking Ideas: The description of Tyrell’s anger, conversation between Tyrell and his mother where she suggests he should sell drugs to support the family.

Reading Level/Interest Age: 15-19

Challenge Issues: Sexuality, sexual activity, language, smoking, drug use, truancy, illegal activities

Why is this book included? Tyrell was well received by critics and won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel.  It is included in this blog because of its excellence as a novel and because it provides a unique and often underrepresented perspective to a young adult collection.

References:

Jones, P. (2007). Tyrell. Multicultural Review, 16(1), 94.

Margolis, R. (2007). A Bronx Tale. School Library Journal, 53(2), 32.

Prince, J. (2009). Keeping It Real: An Interview with Coe Booth. Teacher Librarian, 36(4), 62-3.

Soriano, C. (2006). Tyrell. School Library Journal, 52(11), 129-130.